Sunday, May 16, 2010

Cossacks come out of the basement

I recently finished a portrait commission in charcoal that I'm really happy with. I would show it now if it wasn't for the fact that it's a surprise wedding gift for the client's fiance'. So, instead I'm going to talk about this painting that I ran across at the Cincinnati Art museum. - Well, not exactly. -I'll explain that in a moment.

Cincinnati actually has a nice art museum for a small conservative city, and I should add that we also have the Taft art museum and the Contemporary arts center as well, before I make it sound like we only have one public showcase for art.

Whenever I visit the museum, I often forget that there is quite a large collection unseen in storage, so when I ran across this painting I was very pleased and surprised to find it. I stared at it for quite sometime and wrote down the artist and Title. The painting is titled; "The Zaporozhye Cossacks writing a reply to the Sultan." Now the painting in the museum is done by Paul Porfiroff, but when I did a search online for it, I couldn't find a Paul Porfiroff, and instead the painting was credited to Ilya Efimovich Repin. Long story short, I'm 99% sure that the painting in the Cincinnati art museum is a copy for the fact that 1, the painting by Ilya Repin is said to be housed in The Russian Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia, 2, the online images of the painting like the one above, seem to have a lot more detail than the painting I saw at the Cincinnati art museum, and 3, The signature on the painting I saw in person was done in red in the lower right hand corner, while the painting credited to Mr. Repin is done in black in the center bottom. If you're wondering why I haven't sought confirmation of this, well I have... I asked the museum's security personnel and info center personnel, and they didn't have a clue since it was recently put up on display and I sent an email to the museum curators asking about it and I am still waiting for a response.

Anyways, I still love the painting for many reasons...

First off, without even reading the title, you can tell that the cast of characters are writing something humorous, if not pointedly so, and there is an audience of revelers and contributors surrounding the sneering face of the scribe. I love the faces and poses in this painting. You can almost hear the laughter and read into the character of each man in this painting. I love the face and pose of the Cossack in the center smoking the pipe and glaring with a smile to the right.

Secondly, I love the ethnic diversity in this painting. Without conjuring up ideas of modern social-political agendas, I'm just saying that I love the sense of family within the painting given that you see men of European decent as well as men with differing ranges of Mongolian decent all congregating as a deeply linked brotherhood. I actually did some research on it and found that there is in fact, a deep bond of brotherhood in Cossack culture. You can find more about that as well as read the actual letter that was being written in this painting here.

Thirdly, I love the way this painting is designed. You can trace a spiral inward from the man in back center with his left hand pointing up and to the to the left and then spiraling clockwise you can follow the heads of the men closest to the scribe until you hit the feather at the dead center of the painting. The man siting on the barrel with his back to you is almost falling out of the painting and this direction is reinforced by the Cossack in the back exhaling smoke out his nose with the slanted rifle or spears behind him. - The rifle,or spears begin an invisible line to the head of the man leaning back on the barrel. Finally the crew in the center of the painting are framed by the man in the white cloak with his back to you as well as the man to the far left also with his back to you and just off the left edge of the canvas.


  1. One of my favorite paintings ever! Repin is amazing. I've never seen the (presumed) copy in the cinci museum. I'll definitely have to take a look!

  2. Yeah, check it out. I'm assuming its an authorized copy, but still one heck of a painting.

  3. Hi, John, thanks for the post. You are absolutely right, the paiting is most likely a copy of a famouse painting by Repin. Repin copied the painting himself few times (by the way it's HUGE, probably 2 by 4 meter!), there are few author's copies known, but the one you are writing about is most likely a copy. The copy is done most likely by Repin's student Pavel Porfirov (Павел Федорович Порфиров) in 1929-1931. He was ordered to copy a certain number of famous Russian paitings for the purpose of promotion (propaganda :)) of Russian art in the US. The exibition with his works traveled successfully over the US, the guess is that one of his copies somehow landed in Cincinnati..(a theory of a friend of mine, see link for Porfirov:, but the text about his work is in Russian..)

  4. Dear John Volck!

    I want to know more from Porfiroff, - who is he? and how are his family posterity ?

    Best regards: Ildikó


  5. Thanks for the info Nataly!
    Ildiko, if you follow the link that Nataly provided, you can find something about Mr. Porfiroff, or Porfirov. I just stumbled across him at my local art museum, ao I really don't know much about him.
    Thanks for posting!

  6. john-- I also stumbled across this painting in Cincinnati museum this weekend and was shocked as this is one of the most famous paintings in Russia! I can't even compare it to anything here, I feel like I've seen this painting every year in a history book back during my highschool years. Thanks for doing some research-- very interesting! I was surprised that museum wouldn't note that this is a copy of Repin's famous painting.

  7. Hi John....

    Perhaps you can help me. My father purchased an oil "replication" of this painting during the 1960's in a small Russian bookstore in Chicago. I have been trying for years to authenticate this painting as either a true Repin or one created by perhaps a student. Is there any way that you can help me authenticate this painting or perhaps connect me with an art expert who is familiar with Repin's works? Thanks so much...

    1. Hi Anonymous,

      It is well nigh close to impossible to authenticate a painting back to the 1890's, if without documents and provenance.

      The original Repin painting was exhibited in a few European capitals, and bought by the Tzar of Russia, so a lot of people were able to view it.

      I even have a version. Would be happy to compare versions, by photo! My email is

  8. Anne,
    I am not an authority on the subject, but would suggest to start searching through any local antique spcialists to and ask for art collectors who have a similar specialty. Another place to go would be to auction houses and see if any of their specialists would be willing to help you...

  9. A brilliant painting.

    The varying skin tone of the Cossacks may be due to dirt, sun tans. I'm not sure there were many Mongolians in their ranks. Some mixing of Cossacks and Tatars is possible.

    You are right, the Cossacks did have a strong sense of fellowship and honor.