Finnish Museum Reclassifies Painter Ilya Repin as Ukrainian –

Finland’s largest art museum, the Athenaeum, has changed the nationality of the artist Ilya Repin from Russian to Ukrainian following a campaign from Ukrainians for the institution to recognize his true heritage. 

As first reported by the Finnish news site Suomen Kuvalehti, Repin, a 19th century Realist painter, was first cataloged by the museum in 2021 as Russian. The decision drew protest from some Ukrainians, most prominently Ukrainian journalist Anna Lodygina who wrote an exhaustive investigation for Ukrainska Pravda in which she demonstrated that he was born in territory belonging to modern-day Ukraine. 

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A painting of a red-orange sunset behind clouds that hang over a smooth river.

According to museum records, Repin’s parents were Russian and born in the Moscow region. Lodygina, however, recovered church records that stated that the artist’s father and grandfather were born in Ukrainian territory. 

She also highlighted how this misrepresentation of his origins was common in exhibitions of his work. A large exhibition of Repin’s works, for example, staged by the Finnish museum together with the Tretyakov Gallery and the Museum of Russian Art six months before Russian invasion of Ukraine listed Repin as a Russian national.

Speaking to the Kyiv Post, she recounted her conversations with the curator of the exhibition: “In one of the letters, he sent a link to his material, which indicated that Repin’s parents were Russians born in the Moscow region. I appealed to Olga Shevchenko, deputy director for research at the Repin Museum in Chuhuiv, to send copies from Metric books of the artist’s family, as proof that his roots are Ukrainian, not Russian.”

Repin was one of the most popular Realist painters in Russia in the 19th century, and is especially renewed for portraits he made of Russian literary and artistic luminaries of the times, including Mikhail Glinka, Pavel Tretyakov, and Leo Tolstoy. From portraits to street markets or snapshots of war, he was adept at suffusing a scene with emotion and a sense of mystery. He became a deep admirer of the Impressionists after a two-year stint in Paris, and carried their spirit into his work, which from then grew increasingly allegorical. 

The Finnish museum’s decision follows a trend of returning Ukrainian heritage to artists listed as Russian in museums worldwide. In February 2023, the Metro in New York reclassified Ilya Repin and Ivan Aivazovsky as Ukrainian, rather than Russian artists. The following month, the Stadelijkk Museum in Amsterdam, Netherlands, which has one of the world’s most comprehensive collections of abstract artist Kazimir Malevich, similarly reclassified his nationality. 

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