Ilya Repin’s sketchbook, whose cover page features a self-portrait from 1873, contains 129 drawings. Although most of them are in pencil, there are also 7 remarkable pages in crayon along with two ink drawings. Produced during his stay in Paris in the 1870s, the sketchbook’s drawings depict sitters some of whose names, addresses and physical characteristics are listed in the last fifteen pages. There are a great many preparatory drawings for his painting A Parisian Café (1875, private collection). The sketchbook also features a few studies of groups, although individual depictions predominate. The artist made highly polished studies of their expressions, clothing and attitudes, which he went on to reuse in his painting A Parisian Café, although he changed their faces in the finished work.
Authorized to travel abroad as a resident at the Academy of Arts, Repin took himself off to Italy and France between 1872 and 1876. He rented a studio in Paris and got to know Manet, whose influence can be seen in the subject of A Parisian Café. This sketchbook therefore highlights the connection that this Ukrainian artist from the Russian Empire had with France at the start of his career. It also sheds light on his work method at the time. And finally, it helps explain the genesis of some of the period’s key paintings: Sadko (1876, State Russian Museum, Saint Petersburg), A Novelty Seller in Paris (1873, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow) and, of course, A Parisian Café. Repin exhibited his last painting at the Salon of 1875 so violating the Imperial Academy’s rules and asserting his full participation in French artistic life.
Repin’s sketchbook evidences his solid academic training (first of all at the Society for the Encouragement of the Arts’ drawing school in Saint Petersburg and then at the same city’s Academy of Arts), as much by his mastery of line as by the fundamental role the artist assigned to it in construction of his pictorial work. Repin’s extremely self-assured technique was payback for his being rejected by the Imperial Academy on the grounds that his shading and rendering of shadows were inadequate. Undeterred, Repin took evening lessons in drawing and rapidly surpassed his fellow pupils. He was admitted to the Academy following the next entrance examination. Repin’s mastery of line enabled him to capture his sitters’ expressions to perfection, and, like his paintings, his graphic art bears witness to his passion for narration.
A single drawing by Repin, depicting a peasant, is currently conserved in the Cabinet of Graphic Arts. Musée d’Orsay’s collection of paintings also only contains one of the artist’s works, a portrait of Grand Duke Michael. Nonetheless, Repin is one of the Russian Empire’s best-known artists for the period from 1848 to 1914. This acquisition has added to his corpus of works in the Museum’s collections as well as reinforced the presence of foreign artists therein.