Ilya Repin’s masterwork, “Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan” is a psychologically intense portrayal of a tragic event. Through the artist’s meticulous brushwork, the painting captures the haunting juxtaposition of Ivan’s horrified expression and his son’s lifeless countenance.
As we confront this chilling tableau, profound questions arise about the complexities of power, rage, and the indelible consequences of human actions. The painting takes the viewer on a thought-provoking journey where remorse and devastation intertwine on the canvas.
Ivan IV Vasilyevich was the first “Tsar” of Russia between the years 1547 and 1584. During his reign, the Grand Prince of Moscow received the pseudonym “Grozny”, a Russian word meaning formidable.
However, due to accounts of his malevolent actions, the term was erroneously translated as “terrible” in English, thus cementing the moniker “Ivan the Terrible” despite the mistranslation.
The stories about the evil Tsar of Russia, however, make this nickname an understatement. While historical accounts differ regarding his leadership style, a consistent theme emerges: Ivan IV possessed a volatile temperament.
As he aged, his outbursts of anger became more frequent. In 1560, his wife’s death occurred under mysterious circumstances, leading him to suspect foul play and subsequently execute individuals whom he deemed suspicious. Coinciding with this period, Ivan began employing a pointed scepter as a walking stick.
Over time, Vasilyevich’s paranoia intensified, leading him to develop suspicions about everything and everyone around him. In 1570, he launched an attack on a city based solely on the suspicion that some of its inhabitants were traitors.
Subsequently, he invaded the city of Novgorod, issuing orders for his troops to subject every citizen, without exception, to torture and execution. Shockingly, he even decreed that every child should be tied to their mother and thrown into the river to meet a drowning fate.
Beyond Ivan the Terrible’s accomplishments as a Russian ruler, his reputation also extended to his formidable personality, which numerous scholarly sources have suggested may have been indicative of his mental issues and difficult upbringing.
The Story: Why Was Ivan So Terrible?
Chronicles of Ivan the Terrible
To this day, historians have been unable to definitively ascertain the true circumstances surrounding the demise of Tsarevich Ivan Ivanovich, leaving uncertainty as to whether Ivan the Terrible was responsible for his son’s death.
The prevalent account in the Western world suggests that the Tsar killed his son due to his displeasure with the improper clothing of his daughter-in-law. It is believed that the Tsar’s anger escalated to the point where he struck her, resulting in her miscarriage the following day.
Understandably, Tsarevich became upset by this incident and engaged in a heated argument with his father. Tragically, Ivan met his demise when his father’s scepter struck him on the head during the altercation.
It is important to note that this version of the events was created by Antonio Possevino, a papal legate in Russia. It is possible that Possevino intended to discredit the Russian Tsar and portray him as a “barbarian”.
Numerous such stories have been fabricated despite historical evidence indicating that Ivan the Terrible possessed extensive knowledge of world history and philosophy, making him one of the most erudite rulers of his era.
The literature from that era in Russia merely records the fact of Ivan Ivanovich’s death without delving into the specific causes. Ivan the Terrible himself mentioned in a letter from 1581 that his son was in a severely ill state.
Numerous historians suggest that the quarrel between Ivan Ivanovich and his father may have had more political undertones than familial ones.
It is worth noting that Repin, the artist behind the painting, held liberal views, implying that his artwork might possess a political rather than purely historical nature.
A notable parallel can be drawn with Repin’s well-known piece, “Barge Haulers on the Volga,” in which he depicts the barge haulers as a form of subjugated laborers, aiming to highlight the purportedly “cruel” authoritarian regime in Russia.
The painting’s subject matter engenders political and historical controversies, leading many Russian nationalists to advocate for its removal from public exhibition.
The painting presents a powerful scene with the two figures positioned against a detailed red backdrop. In the lower right corner, the gaze is drawn to the ominous presence of the deadly scepter, accompanied by a trail of blood that culminates in a haunting pool.
The scepter, once wielded by Vasilyevich, has come to rest slightly further away, as he mindlessly dropped the weapon. The displaced carpet on the floor serves as a testament to the struggle that unfolded in that fateful moment.
The father tightly grasps his fatally injured son, his right hand firmly holding him while the left is placed over Ivan’s wound, possibly attempting to stem the bleeding.
Ivan the Terrible appears to kiss his son’s head, as if suppressing a scream, although his covered mouth ironically adds greater weight to the scene. One can imagine him whispering under his breath, “Everything will be okay,” perhaps in a state of denial.
The most striking aspect of the painting is the Tsar’s bulging eyes, penetrating through the somber backdrop. Vasilyevich’s highly expressive face contrasts with his son’s lifeless expression.
While his eyes provide one of the brightest points of color in the picture, this detail intensifies the overall darkness of the theme. His eyes are guilt-ridden, panicked, and bewildered as the shadows cast upon his face intensify his expressions.
In Ivan’s eyes, pain and regret could be due to the political and social consequences he was imagining for his actions. And, as that young man was his only heir, he realized then that he had destroyed his dynasty with one strike.
The truth is, you don’t really need to know the story to share the remorse of a father who holds on to his dying son in his arms. The painting’s impact lies in its ability to evoke a sense of connection with the characters, even in the absence of contextual understanding, highlighting the tragic nature of a father killing his own son.
Furthermore, the artwork can be interpreted symbolically, representing a series of tragic events in Russian history characterized by tyranny, violence, and murder. Regardless of the reasons behind the painting, Repin skillfully evokes a feeling of pity for a tyrant and a murderer.
The Artist and His Process
Ilya Repin, a renowned realist painter of Russian-Ukrainian origin, left an indelible mark in the 19th and 20th centuries.
During the years 1883–1885, he created multiple renditions of Ivan the Terrible, employing various mediums such as pencil sketches and oil studies to explore different aspects of the final composition. In one iteration, the Tsar clutches his spear while cradling his son, averting his gaze.
Another portrayal was made after the original in 1909, for a commission. This version was titled Infanticide (1909). The 1909 portrayal captures the subjects in similar positions, but it is in this version that the father’s profound remorse becomes palpable.
Ultimately, Repin settles on a pivotal moment when Ivan the Terrible transitions from denial to the crushing realization of the tragedy that has just unfolded. In a single frame, Repin encapsulates the narrative arc of Ivan the Terrible’s tale, encompassing its beginning, middle, and end.
The intensity of the father’s rage, which precipitated the fateful blow upon his son, seems to linger in his eyes, transforming into an amalgamation of fear and panic.
Repin masterfully weaves additional elements into the scene, such as the presence of the scepter, the poignant depiction of blood, and the symbolic displacement of the carpet, all of which serve to enrich the storytelling.
Ilya Repin’s painting, “Ivan the Terrible and his Son Ivan,” has suffered not one, but two acts of vandalism. The controversy surrounding the death of Ivan the Terrible’s son continues to reverberate even centuries later.
Repin’s portrayal captures Ivan’s profound remorse, with his emotions vividly expressed through a gaze fraught with terror. It is through his eyes that the painting exerts its compelling power.
The initial incident occurred in 1913 at the “State Tretyakov Gallery,” the painting’s home, when a disabled visitor inflicted three vertical strikes on the canvas, near its center. As he committed this act, the man voiced his discontent, proclaiming, “Enough death, enough blood.”
The act of vandalism garnered heightened attention when the curator responsible for the painting tragically took their own life upon learning of the incident.
In a more recent occurrence on May 25th, 2018, another individual caused damage to the painting, vehemently proclaiming,
This assault resulted in the canvas breaking in three places and its original frame destroyed due to the falling glass.
Where is “Ivan the Terrible and his Son Ivan”?
The painting Ivan the Terrible and his Son Ivan on 16 November 1581 (AKA: Ivan the Terrible kills his Son) is currently on display at the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, Russia. Ilya Repin sold it to the gallery in 1885.
It is widely believed that Repin crafted this painting with a profound message against violence and bloodshed, using the tragic narrative of Ivan and his son as a cautionary tale.
The artist’s intention was to provoke contemplation on the devastating consequences of unchecked power and the everlasting impact of familial strife. There are also rumors that the assassination of Alexander II, a significant event in Russian history, had an impact on this moving piece of art.
Ilya Repin’s masterpiece, “Ivan the Terrible and his Son Ivan,” goes beyond its surface depiction of a historical event, delving into the depths of human emotions and societal reflection.
Through his masterful brushstrokes, Repin manages to evoke a sense of empathy and pity even for a figure as notorious as Ivan the Terrible, effectively humanizing even a murderer.
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