The soviet regime sought to appropriate most Ukrainian artists. Among them was Illia Ripyn. The painter was born in today’s Kharkiv region, loved Ukraine, and depicted it in his works. The whole world considers his style sophisticated. It was clear from the start that the artist would go down in history. But whose history?
The soviet and russian propaganda has gone to great lengths to disassociate the world-renowned painter from Ukraine. Those efforts have been so productive that the world now considers Ripyn to be a russian artist. In this article, we debunk key myths about the renowned painter.
It is said that Illia Ripyn, who hailed from Chuhuiv, Kharkiv region, described himself as “hardworking mediocrity”. His life’s work, however, unmistakably speaks of him as a genius.
His talent for painting sparked in his early childhood when Ripyn began to draw horses which his father traded.
Opportunely, the artist’s family was pretty affluent. But over time, the family neared the verge of bankruptcy, forcing Illia to look for ways to bring in money.
That compelled 19 years old Illia to choose to enter the Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg. Nonetheless, Ripyn maintained close ties with Ukraine throughout the rest of his life.
He sincerely loved Ukraine and adored its people, customs, and nature. It all manifested in his artistic work, which mostly revolved around Ukrainian themes. Ripyn liked to depict Cossacks and Ukrainian nature and women in his paintings.
“Only Ukrainian and Parisian women know how to dress with taste! …Such exquisite jewelry, necklaces, headdresses, and flowers! And the faces!” Ripyn wrote.
The artist spelt his own name as “Рѣпинъ”.
According to the then norms of Ukrainian spelling, the second letter was pronounced as /i/, hence “RIpyn”.
The artist descended from the Ripa Cossack family.
Thus, Ripyn’s family name comes from the Ukrainian word Ripa, or turnip. In fact, his origin explains the artist’s passion for Cossack themes.
Moreover, the artist corresponded with his friends in the Ukrainian language.
This is evidenced by his genuine letters to his fellow countryman, historian Dmytro Yavornytskyi, and his friend, journalist Volodymyr Hitliarovskyi. They both shared Ripyn’s love for Ukraine.
Of all his Cossack depictions, the most famous is the painting known as Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks. Ripyn believed it to be his best painting.
For the artist, the painting was a way to make a stand against the actions of the imperial government in Ukraine.
In reality, Ripyn’s Cossacks were by no means composing a letter to the Sultan.
Its addressee was Alexander II of russia; the same year, he issued the infamous Ems Ukase, completely prohibiting the Ukrainian language.
Many hidden symbols can be found in the painting. For example, two folded flags can be seen in the background, a blue-and-yellow and a red-and-black one.
There is also a domra, a Zaporozhian musical instrument sitting on the lap of one of the Cossacks.
The “letter-painting” did find its way towards an addressee, albeit not the original one but his son, Alexander III. He bought it for the then staggering sum of 35 thousand rubles.
All thanks to General Drahomyrov, who posed for Ripyn’s image of Cossack Sirko. He told Alexander III a lot about Ripyn and his painting.
The painting remained in the royal collection until 1917; the famous “Zaporozhians” eventually ended up in a museum in St. Petersburg.
We trust that this painting, too, will find its way back to Ukraine, the homeland of the famous artist.
The painter died in 1930 in his “Penates” estate in the town of Kuokkala. After the collapse of the russian empire in 1917, it became a part of Finland. Eventually, russia reclaimed it.
The town was known as Kuokkala until 1948. In 1948 it was renamed Repino.
Many researchers of Repin’s life argue that the painter wanted to return to Ukraine. However, the bolsheviks kept him away from Ukraine.
Ripyn did not want to return to russia out of principle, despite the soviet regime’s desire to have him back.
“So long as the bolsheviks remain in power, I want nothing to do with russia”, he wrote in his private correspondence with friends.
The painter willed to be buried in Chuhuiv, his birthplace. Since it was impossible, his wife buried him by a hill Ripyn liked to call “Chuhuiv slide” after his native city.