Upon first viewing of Ilya Yefimovich Repin’s Sadko in the Underwater Kingdom, I was awestruck by its combination of vibrant colors and definite brushwork. Never mind that I had absolutely no knowledge of its subject matter. Some works you can admire without any background information. Just look at this wonderful, creative scene, executed with meticulous detail and theatrical flourish. Part of me finds it difficult to believe such a view was produced as early as the late-19th century. It looks like something one would find featured in a 1950s sci-fi magazine. Painted a little less than 140 years ago, one could only imagine what his contemporaries thought of it, and for this piece Repin earned the title of academician. Currently at the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg, Sadko measures at around 7.54 x 10.58 ft. Seeing this one is person would be quite a treat.
As I learned from a quick Wikipedia search, Sadko is sea merchant from the Russian medieval epic Bylina. After having not paid proper respects to the Sea Tsar for whom he owed his success, Sadko was banished to the underwater kingdom. Eventually he made amends with the Tsar, and was then offered to choose a bride from a line of beautiful women, each personifying different people from around the world. Ultimately he chose Chernava, a Russian girl, as his bride. Well, of course. There are several adaptations of this tale, including a poem by Alexei Tolstoy and an opera by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.
It sounds like a rousing piece of folklore, doesn’t it? Perhaps more importantly, this piece was produced by the famous Russian realist painter Ilyn Repin. I normally associate his hand with works such as Barge Haulers on the Volga, Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks, and other solemn pieces depicting socially minded subject matter. He’s generally regarded as the Leo Tolstoy of the 19th century Russian art world. To put it another way, one doesn’t seek out Repin’s paintings for pleasant landscapes. At any rate, seeing his tremendous skill and precision utilized for such a fanciful scene as here in Sadko is just mind-blowing. Who would’ve thought the same individual who painted Religious Procession in Kursk Province might also commit this extravagant view to canvas?
There’s so much in Sadko which I enjoy. Foremost, I love the vantage point, with Sadko looking upward toward Chernava, as if delivering a soliloquy, while the bubbles ascending the black water bring to mind stars in the night sky. Meanwhile, a parade of exotic women travels beneath his view, showcased in brilliant orange and green. I especially dig the pagan mermaid. And his rendering of vegetation and various other aquatic life, obviously the product of careful study and observation, is quite incredible. This is such a rich, fantastic painting, and it’s almost a pity that Repin didn’t devote his talents to depicting more scenes from Russian folklore.