Repin’s portraits of Alexander Kerensky

PHOTO: Repin’s first portrait of Alexander Kerensky, 1917. From the Collection
of the State Central Museum of Contemporary History of Russia in Moscow

The famous Russian realist painter Ilya Yefimovich Repin (1844-1930), was the most renowned Russian artist of the 19th century, when his position in the world of art was comparable to that of Leo Tolstoy in literature. He played a major role in bringing Russian art into the mainstream of European culture.

Repin was the first Russian artist to achieve European fame using specifically Russian themes. His paintings, made him the leader of a new movement of critical realism in Russian art. His contemporaries praised his paintings, for showing his feeling of personal responsibility for the hard life of the common people and the destiny of Russia. In the 1880s he produced many of his most famous works, and joined the Itinerants’ Society.

Among his vast works, are two little known portraits of Alexander Kerensky, both painted in the summer of 1917.

Alexander Kerensky (1881-1970), was a revolutionary and a key political figure in the Russian Revolution of 1917. In August 1917, it was Kerensky, who made the decision to move the Imperial Family from Tsarskoye Selo to a “safer” location – the town of Tobolsk in Western Siberia. Following the October 1917 Revolution, the Provisional Government was overthrown by the Bolsheviks, forcing Kerensky to flee Russia. He spent the remainder of his life in exile, in Paris and New York City, and worked for the Hoover Institution.

Repin, who was an anti-monarchist, warmly welcomed the February 1917 Revolution, which overthrew the autocratic monarchy and proclaimed a republic, an event for which he was very happy.

It is a well known fact that Kerensky loved to be in the spotlight, and while working on his portraits, Repin fell under the charm of Russia’s new ruler, he was, according to one art critic, “simply obsessed with Kerensky, admired his human and political qualities”.

After the July 1917 suppression of the Bolshevik uprising, Kerensky got a taste of power. He moved into the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, settling himself in the private apartments of Emperor Alexander III, rode in the former Imperial Train, drove about Petrograd in one of Nicholas II’s motorcars, and worked at the writing desk of Nicholas II in the Gothic Library of Nicholas II in the Winter Palace. It was here, that Repin sketched his first image of Kerensky in his album with watercolours and pastels.

PHOTO: Repin’s second portrait of Alexander Kerensky, 1917
Private collection

Between the months of July and October 1917, Repin made repeated visits to the offices of the Provisional Government in Petrograd, to complete his sketches. He bragged to Soviet artists who visited him at this home in Penates (now Repino in Finland) that “Kerensky’s portrait was painted from a sketch from life in the library of Nicholas II”.

Repin’s portrait of Kerensky, in which he is depicted posing in the library of Nicholas II in the Winter Palace had obvious political overtones; sitting in the chair of the deposed emperor, the new ruler of Russia thereby confirming his high status. In this regard, Repin noted that Kerensky “had the glory of almost an emperor, but in reality was a nonentity”.

Repin finished work on his portraits in 1918, shortly after Kerensky was overthrown as a result of the October Revolution. The first (114 × 84 cm) and the second (116 × 85 cm) portraits of Kerensky were painted in oil on linoleum.

Repin’s portraits are by no means flattering, especially when compared with his other works, particularly those of Emperor Nicholas II – of whom he painted on at least six occasions – including his famous painting depicting the wedding of Nicholas II to Grand Duchess Alexandra Feodorovna in the Grand Church of the Winter Palace in1894.

Both portraits of Kerensky are distinguished by a free and spontaneous manner of style, according to critics, bordering on impressionism or even expressionism. Repin painted Kerensky as a flabby, bilious, gray, devastated person, neurasthenic. Being a master of revealing the psychological state of the person being portrayed, his very being, the specifics of poses, gestures and facial expressions, Repin leads the viewer to the idea that Kerensky was in fact such.

PHOTO: Kerensky seated in Nicholas II’s Gothic Library in the Winter Palace, 1917

In the first portrait, Kerensky is depicted seated knee-deep in a chair, from which he looks as if he is ready to jump up. Kerensky slightly tilted his head in a sly half-smile and looks at the viewer with a piercing, sharp gaze. At the same time, peace and fatigue emanate at the same time, as if lacking sleep, and meanwhile he is relaxed – this still does not fit in with his real life, the life of the head of the government of revolutionary Russia, who took upon himself all the hardships of governing the young republic and cannot cope with this burden.

The second portrait seems to be more elaborate compositionally and artistically completed. The light now falls not on the face, but on his nervous, dry hands, one of which is wearing a black glove, which subtly focuses on Kerensky’s mysterious personality. It is noteworthy that politically Kerensky’s opponents mentioned the “greenish tint” of his appearance, hinting at a possible alcohol, morphine or cocaine addiction.

Shortly after the October Revolution of 1917, Repin would regret his support of the new order. After Lenin and the Bolsheviks launched the Red Terror, Repin abruptly changed the bias of his work from anti-monarchist to anti-Soviet.

After the establishment of Soviet power and the proclamation of Finland ‘s independence at the end of 1917, Repin remained stateless. His estate at Penates and his personal fortune were nationalized, and his most famous works remained in the Soviet Union, where they began to be used for propaganda purposes, often interpreted as ideal examples of socialist realism.

In 1926, Repin’s first portrait of Kerensky was presented to the Museum of the Revolution [the former aristocratic English Club] in Moscow – which is today known as the State Central Museum of Contemporary History of Russia. For many years, Repin’s second portrait of Kerensky was held in the Kerensky Archive at the Center for Humanitarian Research of the University of Texas. It was later sold at auction, and is now in a private collection in Russia.

© Paul Gilbert. 11 March 2021

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