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October 23, 2019

Mid-Morning Art Thread [Kris]

Repin Nicholas II.jpg

Nicholas II Of Russia
Ilya Repin

Ilya Repin started his career as a cartographer in military school. He then studied art under various icon painters. After a few fits and starts, he finally entered the Imperial Academy in St. Petersburg where his work began to focus on social issues and The Struggle. His political views would ebb and flow over the years, but he eventually took a job as a professor in the Imperial Academy in the early 1890s and seemed to have a friendly relationship with the upper classes.

This work was painted on the occasion of Nicholas II’s coronation as Czar of All the Russias after the sudden death of his father. Every source I’ve read says that Nicholas was totally unprepared for rule and that everyone in the imperial circles knew it, including Nicholas himself and both his parents. The new Czar accepted it as a divine calling however, as his destiny and duty. It would be a disaster.

The painting is life size, about 8x5. The Czar is front and center, in the vast space of his new throne room. He isn’t in his coronation robes or crown, however, he’s in military dress uniform. The mood is relaxed. Nicholas is young. He is smiling and his eyes look friendly and joyful. His arms are folded gently in front of him, not on his hips like Holbein’s famous portrait of Henry VIII. He also doesn’t project superiority like the portrait of Louis XIV. Except for the throne in the background, it looks like a portrait of a young gentleman officer in any given army. The size of the work denotes importance but Nicholas stares the viewer straight in the eye. He isn’t looking down at us nor ignoring us all together. If one didn’t know the rest of the story, he looks like a decent man, and in his private life, he was.

It is the setting of the portrait that is important here. The space surrounding him is vast. He stands in the very center of the room and the hazy background creates a sense of space. This room is so large that the walls faze into the distance. This room announces the imperial majesty of this person, and, for me, it symbolizes the massiveness of his empire. It is also a metaphor for the scale of the job ahead of him. The room and the job dwarf him.

Light shines in the windows behind him, perhaps symbolizing the bright new day ahead for Russia with its new, young emperor. But the windows are shaded, creating bright streaks across the floor that lead to the throne, not the figure. The throne is in the distant left, slightly faded and blurred. Even out of focus, it still dominates the scene. It looms in the background. The responsibilities of the imperial office overwhelmed Nicholas, and though he tried to manage it, he did not have the skills needed to rule nor did he develop them as time went on.

Imperial artists get to know their patrons pretty well and their art can be very perceptive. An excellent example is Goya’s group portrait of the Spanish royal family. I believe Repin wanted Nicholas look amiable and hopeful, but some details seem apprehensive. Nicholas was a weak-willed reactionary who listened to the wrong people and made the same mistakes over and over and over. The consequences destroyed his family and his country.

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posted by CBD at 09:30 AM

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