In the summer of 1880, Ilya Repin (1844-1930) and Viktor Vasnetsov (1848-1926) were living and working close to the Abramtsevo estate of the great industrialist and art patron, Savva Mamontov (1841-1918). Abramtsevo, purchased by Mamontov in 1870, had become by the end of the decade an informal but important community of artists, which included Repin, Viktor and Apollinary Vasnetsov, Valentin Serov, Konstantin Korovin, Mikhail Nesterov and Mikhail Vrubel. Members of this artistic community, known as the Abramtsevo Colony, stayed and worked in and around the estate. And here both Repin and Vasnetsov spent very fruitful periods of their artistic careers, with Repin completing such seminal works as Religious Procession in the Kursk Province (1880-1883), and Vasnetsov The Bogatyrs (1881-1898).
Near the end of the summer, in August, Repin, Vasnetsov and Mamontov gathered to produce three of the most spectacular and unique sculptures in the history of Russian art. Working simultaneously, Vasnetsov sculpted a plaster bust of Repin; Repin a bust of Mamontov; and Mamontov, of Vasnetsov. In a letter to Vasily Polenov, dated August 23, 1880, Mamontov announced: "I, Repin, and Vasnetsov, sculpted [portraits of] each other, and now the three busts solemnly stand" (E. Sakharova, Vasily Dmitrievich Polenov, Elena Dmitrievna Polenova: khronika semi khudozhnikov [The Chronicle of the Artists' Family], Moscow, 1964, p. 281). Mamontov's son, Sergei, later recalled in more detail: "In the sculptural studio of my father there was always some clay and all the instruments for modeling. And once, I. Repin, V. Vasnetsov, and my father all simultaneously began to work together. Vasnetsov sculptured the bust of Repin, Repin of my father, and my father of Vasnetsov. All three busts, notable for their exceptional similarity to the sitters, were always displayed in the dining room of [our] home in Abramtsevo" (E. Paston, Abramtsevo: iskusstvo i zhizn [Art and Life], Moscow, 2003, pp. 73, 77.) Vasnetsov's original plaster bust of Repin remains in the Abramtsevo Museum-Reserve to this day.
The portrait of Repin is considered to be one of the few works of sculpture by Vasnetsov, who was known primarily for his paintings of mythological and historical subjects. Repin greatly admired the portrait, as did the renowned Moscow collector Ivan Tsvetkov, who in 1909 received permission from Vasnetsov and Mamontov to cast in bronze a version for his own collection. The casting was done by the Robecchi foundry, and the bust remained a part of Tsvetkov's collection until it was acquired in 1927 by the State Tretyakov Gallery, where it remains today (State Tretyakov Gallery: Sculpture of XVIII-XIX Centuries, Moscow, 2000, p. 116, no. 54).
A second version of the portrait was produced and cast for Repin himself in 1909. The plaster head is currently held in the Museum-Estate of I.E. Repin, Penates, and the bronze version, the present lot, was owned by Repin until about 1926. In the summer of that year, Repin was awaiting a visit to his residence, Penates (northwest of St. Petersburg on the Gulf of Finland), from a committee led by Isaac Brodsky (1884-1939), which was sent to purchase works from him. In a letter to Brodsky, dated July 15, 1926, Repin included the bronze head among a group of works available for purchase. "You are coming with the committee to purchase something from me," he wrote. "I have begun to search for [works] which could be of interest to the committee, and [this is what] I have found: I have [work(s) in] sculpture - good bronze and excellent work - by the founder Robecchi (he worked for Troubetzkoy) - you will not regret it: ...6. My bust, by Vasnetsov (1880), head only..." (Pisma k khuudozhnikam i khudozhestvennym deyatelyzm. Pisma I. E. Repina. [Letters to Artists and Art Personas. Letters by I.E. Repin], Moscow, 1952, p. 259). While the bust ultimately was not selected for purchase by the committee, it was acquired a short time thereafter by Levko Alexandrovich Siloti (1897-1984), who visited Repin at Penates. Siloti, an art collector and dealer, was the son of the famous Russian pianist Alexander Siloti (1863-1945) and Vera Pavlovna Tretyakova (1866-1940), daughter of the great Russian art collector, Pavel Tretyakov (1832-1898). The bronze portrait of Repin remained in the personal collection of Levko Siloti and has descended in the family to the present owner. It is being offered at auction for the very first time.
We are grateful to Lyudmila Andrushchenko, Museum-Estate of I.E. Repin, Penates, and Kamilla Shushanyants for their assistance with the research of the present lot.