Portrait of a neurologist and psychiatrist Bekhterev

Ilya Efimovich Repin • Painting, 1913, 107×78 cm
About the artwork
Art form: Painting
Subject and objects: Portrait
Style of art: Impressionism, Realism
Technique: Oil
Materials: Canvas
Date of creation: 1913
Size: 107×78 cm
Artwork in selections: 22 selections

Description of the artwork «Portrait of a neurologist and psychiatrist Bekhterev»

Ilya Repin had a particular weakness for scientists. “Oh, I love scientists so much!” he exclaimed in his memoirs. “I feel hopeless boredom in this wilderness, without educated people... I miss smart and learned faces.”

About 1900, Repin settled in Penaty, an estate in the village of Kuokkala on the Gulf of Finland, he did not have to be bored: not only writers, artists and musicians, but also famous scientists came to visit him. Repin was friends with physiologist Ivan Pavlov and psychiatrist and neurologist Vladimir Bekhterev and, as Korney Chukovsky put it, “had a period of falling in love” — there were such moments in Repin’s creative life when someone’s appearance and personality made an exciting impression on him, and Repin looked at this man with a loving gaze. And so it was until he painted a portrait or a genre painting with the participation of the person who caused the pure delight in the impulsive Ilya Efimovich.

Academician Vladimir Bekhterev often came to Repin’s sessions dead tired. He worked so hard that at the end of the day he often became distracted and sleepy. Many years later, Bekhterev’s son-in-law told Chukovsky about such cases:
Bekhterev received patients until 2 am (patients from all parts of Russia came to him like to a celebrity) and was so stunned after midnight that, when he put stethoscope against the patient’s heart, he said more than once, as if asleep:
‘Academician Bekhterev speaking!’”

How to wake Bekhterev?

In 1913, when this portrait was painted, both Bekhterev and Repin lived on the coast of the Gulf of Finland, in the area of the present-day Smolyachkovo village. His Tikhyi Bereg dacha was located about thirty kilometres away from Repin’s Penates. The youngest daughter of Bekhterev, Maria recalled how they went to Repin several times over the summer, on horseback, through loose sands along the bay coast, and they always visited Ilya Efimovich on 2 August, on Ilya’s day, his name day.

Either the summer turned out to be too hot that year, or Bekhterev devoted too much time to his scientific pursuits, but, having arrived at Repin’s and settled down comfortably for posing, the great psychiatrist began to nod off very soon and sank into a doze. Repin’s wife Natalia Borisovna laughed. “He covered himself with his eyebrows and sleeps!” she said.

At first, Repin did not want to bother Bekhterev and tiptoed out of the studio. The trouble was when the scientist woke up, it was already getting dark, and it was impossible to work further without daylight.

And then Repin found an alternative: he called his young friend Korney Chukovsky (he lived in Kuokkala nearby), who happened to “assist” the artist more than once, entertaining his models with conversations, and sometimes, in agreement with Repin, he deliberately drew them into serious disputes, so that a person opened up and showed emotions, got excited, and Repin could capture the most characteristic facial expressions.

How to make Chukovsky sleep?

One of the favourite topics for conversations between Repin and Bekhterev was hypnotism, which had become fashionable in educated circles. Not long before that, in 1911, Bekhterev published the monograph, Hypnosis, Suggestion and Hypnotherapy and Their Medicinal Significance, and the work of the outstanding scientist additionally spurred certain interest in the mysterious phenomenon. Repin showed such a keen curiosity about hypnosis that he once asked Bekhterev to hypnotize Chukovsky.

And many years later, in his diary entries, Chukovsky would remember how in the summer of 1913 he went to “wake up” Bekhterev who never managed to “put him asleep”:
Prof. Vladimir Mikhailovich Bekhterev is an always sleepy, loose Mordvin with thick eyebrows, with a big beard... When Repin painted his portrait, at the artist’s request, I came to the studio to excite Bekhterev so that he would not fall asleep completely during the session. Once at lunch, Repin told the professor that I suffered from insomnia, and asked him to cure me with hypnosis. Bekhterev was eating a melon then and mumbled indistinctly that he agreed. Immediately after dinner, an armchair was installed in Repin’s studio, I sat down in it with faith and hope, Bekhterev took out some shiny thing from his pocket, lifted it over my head and invited me to look at it unswervingly. I watched, and he muttered in a sleepy voice: ‘And when you put your head on the pillow, you relax your muscles and remember me’ (something like that). I, as it turned out later, do not succumb to hypnosis at all, and then, as luck would have it, Bekhterev began to hiccup from the eaten melon (the molecules of which remained in his beard) at regular intervals. He did it like ‘and when, hic!, you remember me, hic!’ All this amused me, but out of politeness I suppressed my laughter, especially after I noticed that Ilya Efimovich, who was generally in awe of science, was walking around the chair on his tiptoe. I even wanted to pretend to fall asleep, but I didn’t succeed because I wanted to snort all the time”.

Portrait in the spirit of Impressionism

In the portrait of Bekhterev, Repin uses a technique that is different from his earlier realistic portraits. He uses a long and seemingly sloppy brushstroke, thus interpreting and adapting the Impressionist technique to his needs. Igor Grabar, in his two-volume book on Repin’s work, noted: “The portrait was painted with the idea of finishing it in one session, which, however, was not possible. He had to tinker a lot with the head before it took its final form. His painting bears features inspired by the Impressionists.”

The portrait is kept in the Russian Museum, and its author’s copy is in the Bekhterev Memorial Museum at the Psychoneurological Institute.

Written by Anna Vcherashniaya