Alrighty folks, it’s time to talk about everyone’s favorite painting of exhausted, Russian men pulling a boat onto the land. It’s powerful, it’s desolate and it’s an amazing piece of art.
The Barge Haulers on the Volga was painted by Ilya Repin between 1870 and 1873. It is an oil painting on canvas and is 51.8 inches high and 111 inches wide. It currently hangs in the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.
In this article, I’m going to share with you my analysis of this painting. First, I’ll give a quick summary of what it means to me. Then, I will break down how Repin used the seven elements of art (line, shape, form, color, value, texture and space) to put together this powerful artwork.
The Barge Haulers on the Volga depicts 11 men in the process of dragging a large boat out of the Volga River and onto the shore. The men appear tired and defeated, evoking an overall feeling of hopelessness. 10 of the men all look to be the same age and of the same ilk – weathered, leathery and exhausted. However, there is one man who stands out from the others…
Take a moment to look at the painting – which one strikes you as being different? Collectively, we have a group of tired, broken men, but if you look closer, you will see a young man who doesn’t look like he belongs there. I’m fascinated by this guy. And to me, he is the central part of this painting and what it represents… Which brings us to our main question…
What does Barge Haulers on the Volga represent?
Barge Haulers on the Volga represents hope mixed with uncertainty. Amongst the ten, exhausted old men is one young man – the sun is shining brightest on him, his posture is strong and he is looking out into the distance, as if he can see something the others cannot.
The face of the young man is perhaps thinking “this hopeless life is not for me… one day, I’m going to get out of here and accomplish great things”.
But what about the theme of uncertainty What if the young man is destined for this kind of life? These ten men around him could perhaps represent his inevitable fate. One of hopelessness and exhaustion.
The cross around his neck shows that he is a man of faith. Perhaps he has firmly put his trust in God. If his life on earth is on an endless path of struggle, then at least he will find salvation and fulfilment in the next life.
Although this young man has been immortalised in the Barge Haulers on the Volga, I like to believe that this man’s destiny is not a part of this painting. I imagine that he carved his own path and lived a good, abundant life!
So, that’s my very personal and unprofessional analysis of the painting – now let’s jump into how Ilya Repin used the elements of art to put together such a fantastic work of art!
Elements of Art in the Barge Haulers
In this section, we will take a look at how Repin used the seven elements of art (line, shape, form, color, value, texture and space) to create this work of art!
Although the painting itself is a fully rendered illusion of life, Ilya Repin has clearly used lines to help the viewer understand what they are looking at. There is a strong feeling of perspective in the design of the painting.
Although it is not the focal point, the barge is where the perspective lines converge. Everything happening in this painting has started at the barge and then diverged out towards us. It makes for a strong composition and uses the landscape oriented (almost panoramic) canvas well.
One of my great loves is seeing a strong line that is perpendicular to the overall shape of the canvas. This is a verrry wide painting, but Repin has painted a beautiful, tall mast on the barge. Take a moment to imagine this painting without this vertical. It just aint the same!
The men’s heads are well above the horizon line, which means that Repin (and us, the audience) are on a lower altitude as these men, which emphasizes their uphill struggle.
Ilya Repin has used shape superbly well in this painting. If you squint your eyes and look at it, you will still be able to make out a strong composition and have an understanding of what’s going on in the artwork.
Even if you were to color in all the figures black (or red!), you will still be able to make out what the painting is about. This is achieved by the way that Repin has composed the heads and the negative space between the figures and their legs (which creates some interesting geometric shapes).
The shape of the mass of figures are in perspective, with it getting bigger as the men approach us. This enhances the feeling of the short, yet painful journey that these men are enduring by pulling the boat up the banks.
Form is the illusion of using light and shadow to create the illusion of three-dimensional objects. There is no denying that Repin has perfectly brought these men to life on the two-dimensional canvas using lights and darks.
But take a look at the land – while its secondary to the men, I am super impressed by how Repin made the terrain so mountainous and unpredictable. The sand looks soft and wet – which enhances the struggle the men are facing pulling the boat on the shore. Each step forward they take will be accompanied by some level of slipping backwards into the soft ground beneath.
On the topic of sand – check out those reflections! Ilya Repin has created simulated texture of water with the sky reflected on it. If you look directly below the boat, Repin has painted a reflection of the mast into the wet sand. From a technical standpoint this helps create unity in the composition. But personally, this effect gives me the feeling of the boat being anchored to the ground, making it even harder for these poor dudes to pull in to shore!
I never watch any Russian weather channels, but when I think of Russia, I think of the cold. But clearly, I am wrong. Ilya Repin has used beautiful, earthy, warm tones throughout this painting. If you were to put this image through a blue filter, it would have a totally different effect on the audience. In short, these gentlemen look exhausted, and it’s Repin’s warm colors that enhances this feeling even more so.
I mentioned earlier that if you squint your eyes, you can still see what’s going on because of the painting’s strong shape language. But the other side to this coin is the way Repin used value – in particular, the contrast between the landscape and the figures.
I love how Repin chose to paint the boat a much lighter value than the figures. This creates atmospheric perspective, which adds to the desperation these men are feeling. If only that boat was close to shore, then it would have been as dark as them! But alas, they just gotta keep on pulling!
Barge Haulers on the Volga has a gorgeous aspect ratio – I love a wide landscape! Repin used this space to show this long line of men pulling the barge towards us. My hunch is that Repin’s objective was to create a painting showing great depth and distance.
If you check out this article on the element of space, you will see that a two-dimensional space can be made to look three-dimensional by overlapping objects, varying the size and color of objects and using linear perspective.
Repin has achieved all of these. He has overlapped the figures with one another to show that they are walking towards us. He has overlapped the dark mass of the figures with the light mass of the barge to emphasize the distance that needs to be travelled. And of course, he used perspective like a champion.
Ilya Repin’s Barge Haulers on the Volga is a formidable piece of art with some strong themes and beautiful visual elements. We analyzed how Repin used the seven elements of art to create a strongly composed and technically brilliant painting. This has been a fantastic artwork to study – The group of men radiates a feeling of desperation and exhaustion, but it’s that one young man who gives us a feeling of hope mixed with uncertainty. And I do believe he made it out of there! :D
Thanks so much for reading and never stop learning about art!