On the left bank of the Dvina, some 16 kilometers (10 miles) from the Belarusian city of Vitebsk, is the country estate of Ukrainian-born artist Ilya Repin. An avenue of lindens leads from the gate through an extensive park shaded with mature trees, to a charming dacha with a tower. The tower, which has natural light flooding in through its many windows, served as the artist’s studio. Repin lived and worked in this summer house, called Zdravnevo, from 1892 to 1900, during which he completed paintings such as The Belarusian, Moonlit Walk, and Autumn Bouquet.
Ilya Repin was born in the provincial town of Chuhiiv, Kharkiv Oblast, in Ukraine. His family was of modest means and as a youth, Repin was apprenticed to a local icon maker. While training at the prestigious Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg and on his subsequent travels in Europe, he was exposed to a range of artistic genres, from Classicism to Impressionism. However, Repin was searching for a uniquely Russian style of expression.
Towards the end of the 19th century, Russia was deeply divided, with cataclysmic societal tensions simmering under the surface, waiting to erupt. Repin’s epic portrayal of Russian life, past and present, found expression in Realism: boldly composed, politically engaged, and with considerable psychological depth. His monumental painting, The Barge Haulers on the Volga, drew wide critical acclaim, for its powerful and truthful depiction of the poverty and hopelessness, of the working classes in Tsarist Russia.
Other paintings followed with equal success. It is said, that Repin bought the estate in the Vitebsk region, with proceeds from the sale of his painting, The Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks, to Tsar Alexander III, for a fabulous sum of money. Even after he moved from Zdravnevo to his permanent home in Repino, his family continued to live in the estate, till the 1930s. The property subsequently fell into disuse and disrepair. In the 1980s, restoration began on the property. Today, it is open to visitors, for a nominal entrance fee, as a House Museum of Ilya Repin.
The reception rooms and bedrooms of the summer house have been furnished with period furniture, tasteful yet frugal, just as they were when the Repins called it home. The artist’s sketches, letters, books, photographs, and other personal memorabilia are on display. Reproductions of some of his paintings hang on the walls. The originals are mostly in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. The artist’s studio in the tower can be reached by a steep, winding staircase. It offers a 360-degree, panoramic view of the surrounding lush countryside.
Outdoors, it is pleasant to stroll along the pathways, skirting beds of peonies and roses. There is a lily dappled pond and a bronze statue of the artist nestled amidst some shrubbery. The gazebo on a high bank of the river overlooks a wooded shoreline. Repin’s “Sunrise on the Dvina” may well have been painted from a similar lookout point on the estate. Indeed, Repin’s paintings of the last decade of the 19th century, abundantly reflect the remote and tranquil beauty of the Vitebsk region.