Il'ia Efimovich Repin: Sadko in the Underwater Kingdom (1876)

> Oil on canvas, 322,5 x 230cm. The Russian Museum, St. Petersburg


Repin:  Sadko in the Underwater Kingdom Repin is mostly known for his portraits, genre and historical paintings, and this is why his Sadko in the Underwater Kingdom stands out from the rest. Sadko, in comparison to Repin’s other works, seems different and unlikely, because it brings a Russian oral epic into the real world through illustration. The story of Sadko is one of the oldest epics of the Russian culture. “The three songs about Sadko are remarkable because they represent the only Russian epic in which the main character makes a journey to the otherworld. . . . They also combine the elements of everyday life, customs, and institutions in Novgorod from the twelfth through the fifteenth centuries with folk beliefs and with motifs from magic tales” (Bailey and Ivanova 293). In that sense, Sadko contains some elements of a historic painting since Repin dressed his characters in historically accurate costumes, similar to those we encounter in other sources.

“The epics about Sadko consist of three episodes alternating between the fantastic and the real: (1) the gusli player Sadko becomes a rich merchant; . . . (2) Sadko the merchant wagers that he can buy all the goods in Novgorod; . . . and (3) Sadko goes on a trading trip, descends to the undersea kingdom of the Sea Tsar, and returns home” (Bailey and Ivanova 293). While Sadko is in the undersea kingdom, the Sea Tsar offers him to choose a bride among his “three times three hundred daughters” (Bailey and Ivanova 295). “The patron saint of sailors, Saint Nicholas,. . . advises Sadko to pick the servant girl Chernava as a bride. . . . In passing it should be pointed out that Chernava, as a servant girl, appears in several epics, usually at a critical moment for the hero. Saint Nicholas also warns Sadko that if he consummates the marriage he will never return home to Novgorod. . . . Sadko heeds the advice of the saint, picks Chernava, and wakes up standing by the river ‘Chernava’ back in Novgorod, where Sadko’s wife and his returning druzhina greet him” (Bailey and Ivanova 295).

The subject of the actual painting, “as Repin outlined it to Iseev, depicts Sadko, ‘the naive Russian youth,’ selecting his bride from a parade of the most beautiful women of all ages and countries, and, faithful to his heart, choosing the last, the homely Russian girl. Repin described Sadko as ‘brightly lit by electric light’ (a curious concept for an underwater scene), and confessed: ‘This picture reflects my own situation. In Europe, with all its wonders, I feel just like Sadko; I am dazzled’” (Jackson 398). It is not difficult then to understand why Repin chose to paint this particular scene from the epic, since it symbolizes his own attitude. Just like Sadko is charmed by nine hundred daughters of the Sea Tsar, of different nationalities, he still chooses perhaps not so sophisticated, but very homey Russian girl; Repin, despite all of his traveling, still remained a Russian painter with his emphasis on patriotism. “As a contemporary remarked, ‘Repin outside of Russia is unthinkable. Accept him or reject him, he is beyond personal evaluations, he is from the people and is popular in the real sense of the word’” (Jackson 407).

Repin finished Sadko in 1876, not long after his success with The Volga Boatmen. The painting is unusually large and occupies a whole wall in the Russian Museum. I saw the original painting myself, and it cannot leave the viewer without a strong impression. Looking at it for a while, due to the size of the painting, creates a strong illusion of three-dimensional reality, where the spectators feels in the midst of the bride parade deep under the sea. It is the experience of childhood’s ultimate dream – to find oneself in a fairy tale – something we all imagined as children while our parents read us a bedtime story. This dream comes to life in this painting. The three-dimensionality and the large size of the work allow the painter to create life-size figures, which make the painting even more real.

Repin’s use of space and composition is very interesting. In the center of the painting, we see highlighted brides, who are dressed in the costumes of all times and nations. All girls look at Sadko, but the one in the coral-orange dress particularly stands out as we can see her face more clearly than the faces of others. She looks at Sadko, and we, following her glance, finally notice him standing to the right in much darker surroundings of water and algae, wearing his own traditional merchant coat and hat. In his hands, he holds his gusli with no strings, since earlier Sadko broke the strings, following St. Nicholas’ advice, to stop the Sea Tsar from dancing and disturbing the sea. We notice now that Sadko does not gaze at the beautiful girls passing him by; rather, he looks up on the dark wall of the sea palace where we see the last bride, Chernava, coming down.

The artist uses several diagonal lines to signify this triangle, with Chernava and the diagonal wall line at the one side of it, the line of descending brides – at the other side of the triangle, Sadko as its peak, and the highlighted girls at the center. Sometimes, while looking at the painting, we have to remind ourselves that the action takes place on the bottom of the sea, and to emphasize this fact, Repin paints a few fishes, some air bubbles, floating algae, and floating hair and tail of the mermaid in the foreground. The dimness of the canvas not only signifies the fact that we are looking at the scene under water, but also imparts a dreamy quality to the painting, suggesting, perhaps, that Sadko only dreamt about the underwater kingdom and woke up on the bank of the Chernava river.

As I mentioned before, the colors are rather dark, except for the highlighted dresses of the brides. Repin uses dark green and black colors to remind us of the fact that this is an underwater scene, and he imitates the colors and the reflection of light from the underwater objects. As we know, the water becomes darker when one approaches the bottom. The colors Repin uses to paint the girls contrast with the overall color scheme: here he applies red, blue, gold and yellow, and clearly delineates patterns and designs of the dresses. The shapes are smooth and somewhat blurry because we are under water. Brushstroke also seems somewhat loose for the same reason. Repin applies the paint thinly to make it transparent and support the illusion of the water. Particularly, we can see the girls’ dresses as transparent, each with very interesting detail, signifying their belonging to the sea world. The girl in the foreground is a mermaid, the second girl has fish fins as wings on her back, the fourth girl seems to have an octopus sitting on her hat, and the sixth girl has marine patterns on her dress with dolphins or seahorses – all symbolizing the fact that they are the daughters of the Sea Tsar. Among all of these girls, Chernava is dressed most simply; she is less visible, and she looks unimportant and plain. Repin not only chose this particular scene because of its fantastic qualities, but also because it carried his own attitude and main idea, which may not be so obvious at first: despite all the beautiful exotic places and wonders he has seen in Europe, at heart, there was still nothing for him more dear than his plain and simple Russia. This is also the idea that can be found in the epic about Sadko. [N.V.].

[Sources: Parker, Miliukov, Bayley and Ivanova, Hamilton, Jackson].


© Alexander Boguslawski 1998-2005