Ilya Repin was introduced to the family of the architect Aleksey Shevtsov (circa 1815-after 1869) in the early 1860s. In 1872 Repin proposed to Shevtsov's youngest daughter Vera Alekseevna, and the couple were married. For many years the architect’s daughter was an influential model and muse for Repin. Touching portraits of Vera feature in many of Repin’s most famous works, such as Raising of Jairus' Daughter (1872, State Russian Museum, St Petersburg) and the tour de force A Parisian Café (1875, Private collection, sold at Christie’s, London, 6 June 2011, lot 22).
Among his contemporaries Repin enjoyed a reputation as one of the greatest masters of portraiture of his day. Unlike any other Russian artist who worked in this genre, Repin was able to bring to the fore his outstanding artistic skills in the present portrait of his wife: insight and sensuality, observation and excitement, psychological depth and an ardent temperament. Repin’s finest portraits of the early 1880s are of people close and important to the artist, such as Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881), Nikolay Pirogov (1810-1881), Afanasy Fet (1820-1892) and Vsevolod Garshin (1855-1888).
Another striking portrait of Vera, entitled Repose (1882, State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow) was exhibited at the Xth Itinerants' exhibition in Moscow, where the Press immediately recognised the painting as Repin's most accomplished work. It is possible that the present Portrait of Vera Repina, the artist's wife, reading painted in early 1882 precedes Repose. Vera is depicted seated, akin to a student, dressed in a house dress, her eyes downcast as she concentrates on reading a newspaper. Her black dress is striking in its simplicity, with long sleeves and a white collar, the portrait is devoid of superfluous details or accessories, the only detail being the small buttons at her chest. Vera’s dark hair is idiosyncratically parted in the centre and gathered at the back. The model gently leans on the soft back of the armchair covered with a white shawl. The background is neutral, painted with thick brushstrokes of olive-grey paint. The folds of Vera’s dress are heavily impastoed, creating a textural richness, and the well-defined dark silhouette results in a solidity of form. Repin delights in compositional simplicity and refined elegance, Vera’s peaceful and expressive face is set against the monotone background of the wall, the resulting monochromatic harmony is heightened by her snow-white collar and the white shawl. The face of the model seems to radiate from within, illuminated by an interior energy and beauty. Vera’s natural posture is not typical for Russian portraiture of this period, but was a unique figural device utilised by Repin.
The artist had already painted Vera with a book (1878, formerly in the collection of Countess Natalia Golovina) and a female portrait entitled Reading (1876, State Museum of Fine Arts of Tatarstan). Igor Grabar and later M. A. Nemirovskaya noted that Repin’s portraits of this period were characterised by his passionate attachment to his models. Vera’s occupation as diligent reader is conveyed in paint, also reflecting the fact that Repin enjoyed listening to others reading while he worked. According to the memoirs of his contemporaries, on 21 January 1882 during an evening drawing session in Repin’s studio, Vera read aloud Vladimir Stasov’s article about Leclerc in Poriadok [Order] newspaper: ‘We were in unanimous delight with Leclerc’s precise remarks about Horace Vernet, about [Jean-Léon] Gérôme...’ (Repin’s letter to Vladimir Stasov from 22 January 1882). Unsurprisingly, Vera was a favourite model of Repin during the happy years of their marriage.
Portrait of Vera Repina, the artist's wife, reading is characterised by a charming immediacy and intimacy, while the formal qualities of Repin’s composition are imbued with a tonal purity, perfectly suited to capturing his wife’s portrait. Meditative and tranquil, Repin records a tender moment of shared experience between artist and wife. ‘Here the artist came close to the verge separating art from reality, perhaps even crossed it […] At these moments he praises Titian, Velázquez, Hals and Rembrandt, but only the oeuvre of their ‘latest artistic manners’ impetuously bold and sweeping, close in spirit to Édouard Manet’ (I. Grabar, Ilia Efimovich Repin, Moscow, 1937, vol. II). Later Repin admits: ‘The essence of art lies in its charm. The artist should be forgiven for any flaws as long as his creation enchants’ (Ilya Repin, 15 March 1915).
We would like to thank Liudmila Andrushchenko, Senior Researcher at the Ilya E. Repin Estate-Museum 'Penates' for providing this note.