Ilja Repin - the Volga boatman

by Alexandra Tuschka


It is probably the most famous work of the Russian Ilya Repin. Eleven men drag themselves diagonally from the right edge of the picture to the left. Bracing their bodies against the straps, they pull a barge along the Volga River. Within the group, muted browns and greens dominate the group and create compositional cohesion. Except for the light-skinned boy in the center, the men are haggard from the strenuous towing. A wide range of different emotions and impulses can be read from their faces. The frontal gaze of the man in the second row, which mediates between the pictorial spaces, reaches us particularly impressively.

In Russia, Volga towboats were still being used when the first steamships were already in operation. Treidlers were mostly used when ships had to be pulled upriver. The contrast of the hard-working men and the new technical achievements is shown by the insertion of a steamboat in the background. Presumably it will soon overtake the barge being towed here without any problems.


The treidler can be taken up representatively for the suffering ability of the Russian people. Only the boy in the middle loosens his belt, perhaps symbolically wanting to free himself from the rigid, old system.


Ilya Repin - the Volga boatman

Oil on canvas, 1870 - 1873, 131,5 × 281 cm, State Museum of Russia in Saint Petersburg