In my Russian culture class today, we got to discuss one of my favorite paintings, Ivan the Terrible and His Son, by Ilya Repin (1885), and I wanted to share it, not only because it is a beautiful and compelling painting, but also because of the history behind it.
Ivan IV of Russia, commonly known as Ivan the Terrible, is pictured here with his dead eldest son and heir, Ivan Ivanovich.
It was a very hot day and Ivan Ivanovich’s wife was heavily pregnant and walking around in what Ivan deemed was less than proper attire for the wife of a tsarovich. When he forcefully told her as much, his son intervened on her behalf, defending his wife from his irate father. Infuriated at his defiance, Ivan struck him in the head with his staff, killing him. His eldest son and the heir to the Russian throne was now dead. After Ivan IV’s death a few years later, Russia fell into a long period of civil strife known as the Time of Troubles.
I don’t want to focus on the politics, though.
This painting is one of Repin’s most famous, and understandably so. We see Ivan’s son, cradled to his father’s chest, dripping in vibrant red blood, with still a trace of shock in his eyes.
Ivan’s (IV) face is what captivates me though. His eyes are enormous, much like you would find in Russian icon paintings. Ivan, although tsars claimed to be appointed by God, looks anything but holy in this image; in fact, he looks a little demonic. His face is filled with horror, revulsion, and disbelief. Did this really just happen? Is his son truly dead? How many times has he held his son like this before, when he was smaller? It’s all the more interesting to think of a young Ivan (IV), whose father died when he was barely a toddler, leaving him to become a child ruler whose early life was dominated by powerful regents. He grew up without a father; now, in a cruel twist, he has lived to see his own son die, and at his own hands.
Everywhere, the painting is saturated in red, one of the most beloved colors in Russian art. His son is bathed in white, dressed in pale colors, while he is shrouded in black, leaning into the shadows. The two figures jump out at the viewer from the center of the painting, forcing you to study the two of them. It’s painful to look at. But Repin’s masterful use of oil paint and light and dark make it very beautiful, too.