Description of the artwork «Barge haulers on the Volga»
Repin had painted the Barge Haulers on the Volga before he read the Reflections at the Front Door by Nekrasov. However, when he had read it, he criticized it. Nekrasov wrote:
Go out to the Volga: whose groan is heard Over the great Russian river? This groan is called a song — The barge haulers go on the tow!
Whereas Repin assured that the barge haulers did not have to think about any songs, even like a groan. “…I did not meet any disposition to sing with them; even on holidays, even in the evening before bonfires with a kettle, gloom and anger seized them,” assured Repin. And indeed, looking at the barge haulers in the picture, we cannot really imagine them singing a song, be it lyrical or accusatory.
The framework of genre painting was too narrow for Repin. He did not make either an “everyday” or an accusatory picture. Although initially he had such plans. Once, while walking with his friends along the Neva, Repin saw the barge haulers, and he was deeply struck by the contrast between them and the idle aristocratic crowd. In 1870, the artist and his friends set off on a trip along the Volga, during which he worked on sketches for the Barge Haulers (1, 2, 3, 4, 5).
The Barge Haulers by Repin are monumental, these skinny, ragged people seem to express the strength and hopelessness of the nation. The shining barge behind them is not just a ship with a cargo, but the very world that will no longer be able to live the old way after a while. At the same time, Repin was not fond of symbolism as such. His barge haulers are exactly the barge haulers, emaciated men pulling the straps. And they are dragging not an allegory, but a real barge on their shoulders. At the same time, the painting that came out from under the artist’s brush is much more grandiose than his original plan.
We can see a shining and almost festive landscape: a golden shore, a clear sky, a ship in the distance on the flat surface of the water. The dark chain of the barge haulers contrasts against the landscape as if they’re something alien. They seem to be a phenomenon of a completely different world. The barge haulers move from the depths of the canvas towards the viewer. Their path is the subject of the picture. You cannot see where they came from, behind them, there is only a shining landscape, as well as ahead. And this inappropriate, strange and awkward chain of emaciated people moves through the world that is too bright, too festive for them. “Look, what is it moving here? That dark, greasy, brown spot crawling in the sun?” Repin described his impression of the first meeting with the barge haulers. He created his picture almost simultaneously with Savrasov, who painted his Volga near Yuryevets. At the same time, both artists independently entered into a dialogue with Vereshchagin’s Barge Haulers.
The peculiarity of the Repin’s painting is that the barge haulers are individualized in it, they are separate people with their own histories. The one walking in front in the centre was painted from Kanin — this is a renegade priest and Repin’s favourite model on this canvas. To his right is a huge man embodying a wild untamed force; to his left is a sailor who looks directly at the viewer with a glass gaze full of hatred. In the second three, a very young boy stands out; he seems to be trying to take off his shoulder strap.
One of Repin’s conflicts lied in the fact that he was undoubtedly an artist expressing public aspirations, an artist with his civic stance, and at the same time, he tried to follow the ideas of pure art from time to time, he protested against the publicism of the Itinerants who strove to “preach”. In this sense, the Repin’s Barge Haulers on the Volga are unique: they are devoid of didactics, but they certainly cannot be called “art for sake of art”.
“Barge haulers, real barge haulers and nothing more,” Dostoevsky admired. “None of them shouts from the picture to the viewer: ‘Look how unhappy I am and how much you owe the people!’” How did Repin manage to portray not a miserable stylization, but flesh and blood, and do without teachings at the same time? The only imperative that Repin sets is: “Look!” But you cannot evade it.
Repin presented the painting at a one-year academic exhibition, and even postponed his internship in Europe to complete it. The Barge Haulers on the Volga aroused keen interest and mixed reactions. Its ratings ranged from “profanation of art” to “the greatest work ever”.