The agreeable life enjoyed by Repin at Kuokkala came to an end following World War I and the October Revolution when the shifting of boundaries left Penaty in independant Finland. The last years of the artist's life were spent in increasing material uncertainty as the flow of visitors and patrons of his art ceased. Repin's daughter, Vera, along with a lawyer neighbour, Vasilii Levi, were instrumental in organizing a series of exhibitions abroad to tap foreign markets, and it was from these somewhat straightened circumstances, alone in what he described as an erstwhile 'mecca of the intelligentsia', that the American critic Christiam Brinton persuaded Repin to contribute works to a large one-man exhibition in New York in 1921, amongst which was The Attack with the Red Cross Nurse.
For Brinton, who had made a career out of promoting Russian art, this was something of a coup. In 1904 Repin had lost a large portrait at the Centennial Exhibition in St. Louis when shady dealing on the part of the organizers led to the official seizure and sale of works to pay excise duties. At this point Repin vowed 'never again to have anything to do with Americans in anything connected with art or artists'. In the event there is some doubt as to whether or not he again fell foul of American maladministration in 1921, losing The Attack with the Red Cross Nurse amongst others (see F. & S. J. Parker, Russia on Canvas: Ilya Repin, Pennsylvania, 1980, p. 145, no. 29).
The range of Repin's art during this period included mainly portraits, literary themes and religious subjects some of which were also sent to New York, but with The Attack with the Red Cross Nurse Repin showed how he had made his reputation as the leading figure of the critical realist school. Though always free of narrow political concerns the liberal, democratic and humane ethos of Repin's art was something he never forsook. Ever a keen observer of social and political phenomena and of the fates of those caught up in contemporary events, art in the abstract divorced from human concerns never fully accorded with Repin's temperament and even through an avowedly 'art for art's sake' phase in the 1890s he continued to work on dramatic narratives. Alexandre Benois, a leading light of Diaghilev's Mir iskusstva, and one of Repin's sharpest critics, recalled the artist's eclectic outlook with pleasure: 'I liked this versatility of his. It seemed to prove that in spite of old age he had kept his freshness and sensitivity, that he was still full of life; he continued to talk and write about everyone and everything with the same impetuosity and absolute sincerity, giving vent to his enjoyment of the things which pleased him.'
The Attack with the Red Cross Nurse undoubtedly fits this scheme, but while being a subject over which the artist clearly expended great time and effort (its size alone denoting a serious venture) there is some doubt as to what exactly the picture shows. It exists also as a small watercolour sketch, again dated 1917 (The State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg), and has been interpreted both as an episode from World War I and a scene from the 1917 revolutionary uprisings. For obvious reasons Soviet commentators would have been happier to regard it as depicting the latter, though this may be far from fanciful. A passing reference to the canvas in a selection of new writings about Repin published in 1969 would suggest that it is part of a series of patriotic canvases depicting events from the War, possibly with a view to raising funds for the Russian cause. This is certainly characteristic of Repin's practical and ethical approach to art which frequently saw the sale of works to provide material support to supplement the ideological support embodied in the image. Among many such philanthropic gestures Repin donated sale proceeds to famine relief in support of the pacifist ideals of Tolstoy and Vereshchagin, and to the Women's Medical Institute to fund surgical courses for female students.
Brinton, in his 1921 catalogue, equivocally describes the work as depicting a scene from Russia's 'recent upheavals' but specifically identifies the action as taking place before the Winter Palace. Possibly Brinton has this version of events from Repin with whom he had been in contact for many years, certainly as early as 1906 when he wrote an article, 'Russia's Greatest Painter - Ilia Repin', for Scribner's Magazine. One might logically ask if it is likely that Repin would be painting events related to the War when revolution was on the streets of Petrograd, so close to his home at Penaty. Despite his semi-exile in Kuokkala, Repin kept closely abreast of the political convulsions which he welcomed, somewhat naively, as heralding the dawn of an equitable republic in Russia. Amongst the titles on his easel at this time were The Starving Comrades, Bolsheviks, and a highly tendentious version of his famous Barge-haulers entitled The Cattle of Imperialism. In 1917 he even travelled to Petrograd to paint Aleksandr Kerenskii (see Christie's, New York, 19 October 2001, lot 193), a portrait which also appeared in the 1921 New York show.
Stylistically, in terms of colour scheme and rough, impacted treatment, The Attack with the Red Cross Nurse shares much with Kerenskii's image and with other late canvases. The bold, graphic quality of the design as the soldiers, bayonets drawn, enter battle with the young sister standing bravely with them under fire, utilises an expressive economy similar to the work of Repin's famous pupil, Valentin Serov, whose Soldiers, Brave Fellows (The State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg) also evokes a military charge (in this instance during 'Bloody Sunday' in 1905) whilst in reality depicting very few figures. In the absence of a positive identification by the artist a definitive view of the scene depicted remains conjectural. It is, nevertheless, an important and impressive example of the abiding concern for the dramatic utility of art on the part of an artist whose enfant terrible reputation had been made with a series of original and candid depictions of contemporary social and political phenomena.
We are most grateful to Dr. David Jackson of the Department of Fine Art, University of Leeds, for the above entry.