History is fascinating. I have only found this since getting a bit older, as in school I only seem to remember studying the first world war. If you had spoken to me at the age of 18 I could have told you a lot about trench foot, trench warfare and no mans land. We never really covered anything that I could say was really interesting, which in turn made me shy away from having any interest in events of the past, or how we see through time trends in the human condition. It was really only when I fully started to appreciate my interest in art, did history raise it’s head and become something which is so intrinsically linked with art appreciation. I think that history could be taught in such a way that it highlights the importance to people as it penetrates our culture and how societies have developed, it’s such a shame that history lessons (at least those I had) covered such a restricted portfolio.
Ilya Repin was a Russian artist born in 1844 and died in 1918. His art falls in to the realism school and has many notable works. He studied at the Imperial Academy of Arts, and was known for his constant search for new techniques to give his paintings a fullness and richness, not only visually, but also emotionally.
Repin painted ‘Ivan the terrible killing his son’ in 1885. The painting is a dramatic and heart wrenching depiction of when temper goes too far. He has captured the look of fear on Ivan’s face as he clings to his son, blood pouring from his temple, indicating the blow. The lighting of the scene highlights the central drama, the rug in disarray from the events leading up to both men being on the floor. The background is highlight detailed, yet in a muted pallet so as not to detract the viewers attention from the main event. To the mid right of the painting you can see a pool of blood from where Ivan’s son fell, the staff which struck the fatal blow bottom right; a chair and cushion off to the left have been knocked over, indicating a large scale emotional outburst. Even if you don’t know anything about the background to this story, you can certainly tell, that one man has struck the other, and that they are close from the positioning of them.
Ivan IV Vasilyevich lived between 1530 and 1584, during this time he was the grand prince of Moscow and the became the Tsar of all Russia in 1547. He was known as an able diplomat, and he transformed Russia and its political structure. He was known as intelligent and devout, but he was also prone to intense rage in situations he didn’t feel comfortable in, and bouts of mental instability, which became more apparent with age.
I am not going to describe his entire reign over Russia, as I think anyone who is truly interested can do a quick google search and find out the colourful life of Ivan, but I will look at the event depicted in this picture, so that you can go away with the context of what Repin has demonstrated in his painting.
Ivan had a son called Ivan (just to make writing about them very confusing… I will therefore refer to the son as Ivan Jr.), the relationship was strained between father and son as Ivan had prohibited Ivan Jr. first two wives from entering the holy places due to their inability to bare children. While this caused some annoyance to Ivan Jr. he was a dutiful son and obeyed his father’s wishes. Breaking point came when Ivan Jr. found Ivan beating his third wife – who was pregnant. The beating ultimately caused a miscarriage. Ivan had undertaken the beating as Ivan Jr’s wife was wearing inappropriately light clothing. Hearing his wife, Yelena’s screams, Ivan Jr. rushed to her defence, but years of repressed anger then flooded Ivan Jr. and they argued. The argument surpassed just the beating of the Yelena, and Ivan Jr. threw all of Ivan’s failings around the Livonian wars at him, as well as how his first two wives had been sent to nunneries for no reason.
Misconstrued as a rebellious act, Ivan struck his son with his staff to the temple in his anger. Boris Godunov, who was present at the scene, tried to intervene but received blows himself. Ivan Jr. fell, barely conscious and with a bleeding wound on his temple. Ivan immediately threw himself at his son, kissing his face and trying to stop the bleeding, whilst repeatedly crying, “May I be damned! I’ve killed my son! I’ve killed my son!” Ivan Jr. briefly regained consciousness and was reputed to have said “I die as a devoted son and most humble servant”. For the next few days, Ivan prayed incessantly for a miracle, but to no avail, watching his son die at his own actions.
Repin, beautifully captures the moment of regret after the madness of temper. The look of fear and hysteria on Ivan’s face emotionally draws the viewing into some unexpected sympathy for the effective attacker. Despite the tragic event you can feel the devotion between the couple as Ivan Jr. allows his unstable father to hold him.
The look on Ivan’s face, does make me think of Goya’s interpretation of ‘Saturn‘, it is almost the same insanity in the eyes, which comes from the fear of a father being overthrown by his son. It’s a crazed look which comes with power and the fear of losing it.
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