Art History History Painting

History Painting: ‘Ivan the Terrible and His Son’ by Ilya Repin, 1885.

Although the Grand Prince of Moscow, Ivan IV had already effectively ruled Russia since 1533, he decided to raise the stakes and had himself officially crowned as the first Russian Czar (Caesar) on January 16th 1547. His bold coronation was a message to his subjects and Europe that he saw himself, like the Byzantine’s once did, as God’s representative here on earth. Interestingly, in his endeavour to establish Russia as a Christian state, Ivan tied his new position strategically to Orthodoxy. 

His reign lasted until 1584 with a long list of notable achievements. His reforms were extensive, introducing measures of self-government and at the same time curtailing the power of the aristocracy. In foreign policy, he promoted and forced Russia into Europe, while at home a detailed new legal code and cultural development, such as the printing press, helped modernize Russia. However, his reign is also remembered for him virtually bankrupting the state and his long campaign of terror against the Russian nobility, putting to death thousands of victims. It was during this period of ‘madness’ that he infamously beat his pregnant daughter-in-law, causing her to miscarriage and ruthlessly blinded the architect of St. Basil’s Cathedral, so he could not build anything of equal beauty again. Tragically he also killed his own son, in a fit of rage, which hastened the extinction of the Rurik dynasty.

In the famous history painting Ivan the Terrible and His Son, Russian realist painter Ilya Repin tries to capture the repentant Tsar in the immediate aftermath of having bludgeoned his son to death with the royal sceptre during an argument. Of immediate interest is the key placing of the bloodied sceptre in the foreground, a turned over chair and bunched up rug indicating a violent struggle. Importantly, Ivan the Terrible is kneeling holding his son horrified by what he had done in the heat of the moment. The painting is said to be a stroke of genius highlighting violence and ‘its place in Russian history and its consequence’.

When considering this painting for this series, I must admit I did not know a lot about Repin or his life’s work. I soon came to realise that he was evidently the first Russian artist to achieve European fame in particular for using Russian characters and settings. Over a lifetime he also painted icons, portraits and historical paintings as a realist painter until his death in 1918. Many of his most important works are on display in various galleries and museums, including his most controversial painting of Ivan the Terrible and His Son. Interestingly, this painting has been twice vandalised, first in 1913, when it was slashed three times across the face of Ivan and his son by a young man named Abram Balashev because he believed Repin’s painting was historically inaccurate. In a second physical attack on the painting in 2018, it was badly damaged right in the heart of the Tretyakov Museum, in Moscow, after an alcohol-fuel assailant attacked it with a metal pole. It is believed that it will take several years to repair Repin’s controversial masterpiece. We can only hope it will return one day soon but for now we will have to be content with its appearance in books and online.

For some further insight into the controversy surrounding Repin’s famous masterpiece and Ivan the Terrible it is worthwhile reading the following two publications: Times of Trouble: Violence in Russian Literature and Culture, edited by Marcus C. Levitt & Tanya Novikov, The University of Wisconsin Press, 2007 and Ivan the Terrible by Andrei Pavlov & Maureen Perrie, Routledge, 2003.


This painting is in the public domain.

2 comments on “History Painting: ‘Ivan the Terrible and His Son’ by Ilya Repin, 1885.

  1. Thanks for these book recommendations Robert. I finished The Romanovs recently…they were a ruthless bloodthirsty lot!

  2. Such an intensely powerful painting! The dramatic emotion that Repin manages to capture in the two figures’ eyes is truly remarkable. Nice article Robert.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: