3 Truth and fiction in Barge Haulers on the Volga: what actually was work of barge haulers

Truth and fiction in Barge Haulers on the Volga: what actually was work of barge haulers


The painting “Barge Haulers on the Volga”, that made Ilya Repin famous, since its introduction caused mixed reviews. Someone admired the skill of the artist, someone accused him in deviating from the truth of life. Why does the famous painting provoke a scandal at the state level, and how Repin actually sinned against reality?

These are images of poor ragamuffins, earning a living by overwork, known by everyone from school textbooks. Barge haulers in the XVI-XIX centuries were wage workers, who with the help of string pulled riverboats upstream. Barge haulers united in cooperatives of 10-45 people, there were even women cooperatives. Despite the hard work, during the season (spring or fall) haulers could earn so much that they could live comfortably within half a year. Because of poverty and poor harvests peasants often became haulers, but mostly such work was done by bums and homeless.

Shubin argues that in the XIX century haulers work was like this: on a barge, there was installed a large drum with a rope wound on it. People sat in the boat, took a cable end with three anchors and sailed upstream. There they threw anchors into the water one by one. Haulers on the barge pulled the rope from bow to stern, winding it on a drum. Thus they “pulled up” barge upriver: they walked back and the deck beneath their feet moved forward. As they winded the rope, they again went to the bow of the ship and did the same thing. On the shore, they had to pull only when the ship was sinking stranded. That is reflected in the episode of Repin – an isolated case.

The same exception is also the section of the road shown on the picture. Shoreline – coastal strip through which the haulers moved by the orders of Emperor Paul wasn’t built up with buildings and fences, but there were a lot of bushes, stones, and swampy places. Deserted and smooth beach pictured by Repin – a perfect part of the way, and there were not a lot of them .

The painting “Barge Haulers on the Volga” was written in the 1870-1873 years, when steamers replaced sailing boats, the need in haulers works disappeared. Even in the middle of the XIX century haulers work began being replaced with the traction machine. That is, at that moment the picture was already the subject that is hardly relevant. Therefore there was a scandal when the “Haulers” of Repin in 1873 were sent to the World Exhibition in Vienna. Russian Minister of Railways was indignant: “Well, what pulled you to write this ridiculous picture? This antediluvian transport has been reduced to zero by me, and soon there will be no signs of it! “. However, Repin himself was patronized by the Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich, who not only spoke approvingly about the work of the artist but even bought it for a personal collection.

“Haulers” were written by Repin in 29 years, finishing his studies at the Academy of Fine Arts. At the end of the 1860s, he went to Ust-Izhora, where he was impressed by haulers cooperatives. To learn more about the interesting characters, Repin settled for the summer in Samara region. His research is not serious what he admitted: “I must confess frankly that I wasn’t interested in the question of life and social structure of contracts with the owners of haulers; I asked them, just to seem serious. To tell the truth, I even vaguely listened to some stories or the details of their relationship with the owners. ”

Repin. Barge Haulers on the Volga. Fragment: ahead there was * leader * next to them – * subordinates*

Nevertheless, “Barge Haulers on the Volga” fairly accurately reproduces the hierarchy of salaried workers: in the front strap, there was always a strong and experienced hauler called “leader” – he set the rhythm of moving. Behind him were “one-sided” who worked for food, because all the salary they spend at the beginning of the path, they were chased by “zealous”. To make all keep pace, “leader” sang songs, or just shouted words. In the role of “leader,” Repin portrayed Kanin – defrocked priest who served as the hauler. Artist met him on the Volga.

Repin. Barge Haulers on the Volga. Fragment: on the left – * one-sided *, on the right – cooker  Larka

Despite the existence of real prototypes, in the academic society “Haulers” were called “the greatest profanation of art”, “sober truth of miserable reality.” Journalists wrote that Repin embodied “scrawny little ideas, transferred from newspaper articles … from which realists drew their inspiration.” At the exhibition in Vienna, many people were watching on the picture with bewilderment. One of the first who estimated the beauty of the picture was F. Dostoevsky, whose admiring reviews were later picked up by art experts.

Repin. Barge Haulers on the Volga. Fragment: * overseer * , hurrying freeloaders

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3 Responses to “Truth and fiction in Barge Haulers on the Volga: what actually was work of barge haulers”

  1. Papa Karlo says:

    The real life of Burlaki was described pretty well in “My roamings” by Gilyarovsky. He himself worked as a burlak. And according to him, hauling barges like on Repin’s picture, was not an isolated case, but a usual deal, in 1870s.

  2. Martin Barlow says:

    By placing a steam vessel downstream on the right of the painting, Repin himslef was indicating that the barge hauers’ way of life was coming to an end. Unfortunately and unforgivably, it is cut out of your reproduction of the painting.
    Of course the old guard would criticise Repin, they wanted everything shown as hunky dory, with no criticism of life in Russia under the regime they were a part of. It was the same everyewhere (e.g. Constable in England) when artists started depicted actual lived experience. But the photographs of actual barge haulers and Repin’s depiction have a remarkably similar overall feel.

  3. L R Tuggle says:

    Excellent article -thank you. A piece of art that many have seen but knew little about. There is always more to the story than appears on the surface. (I can’t look at that picture with hearing the Re Army Chorus singing “Song of the Volga Boatmen” in my head -YO HO HEEEAVE HO)

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