Repin's Cossaks

By Michael Canale,
February 2001



Elias Repin is a Ukrainian artist who has captured a historical moment on canvas that has transcended time. The title of the work is “Zaporozhian Cossacks of Ukraine Writing a Letter in Reply to the Sultan of Turkey” and is regarded as his greatest work. The painting is in the St. Petersburg Art Gallery in Russia (1, Gregorovich). The power of the painting is that the event taking place in it may not have been as important without the creation of the artwork. Repin has drawn attention to the incident through his drawing, and without it history may have forgotten all about the letter. Like other works before it, such as the scene of George Washington crossing the Delaware, Repin’s work has helped turn what could have been a dead piece of history into a beloved source of Ukrainian pride.


According to Andrew Gregorovich, the work was painted between 1878 and 1891 taking a total of thirteen years to complete. Meticulous research in order to attain historical accuracy is the largest contributor to the thirteen-year total. During that time, Repin traveled through the Ukraine and the Zaporozhian area (1, Gregorovich). The result is a painting that captures not only a historical moment on canvas, but also Repin’s vision of Ukrainian life. Early renaissance artists who took many years to complete projects may have inspired his research and travel. The timeframe to complete a painting was large not only because of the scale of the work but also because of the close attention to history that had to be preserved. The subjects of the painting are cheering on their fellow men that are writing a letter to the Sultan of the Turkish Empire. It is believed that the letter was actually written in the 1660’s (2, Gregorovich). The composition of the letter is one that would not be expected from a group trying to free themselves from a tyrant. Instead of being diplomatic in their tone, like the early Americans were, they used a slew of insults along with their demand for freedom.


Repin not only followed the research style of renaissance painters, but he also followed their revival of the classical value of humanism. The style is a move away from the otherworldly paintings of religion, and a step towards closer ties to real life. The first aspect Repin used to bring his painting under the fold of humanism is the decision to recreate a historical event.

The following travel and research allowed Repin to reconstruct an accurate portrayal of a real life event. Instead of previous painters who had used imagination to construct paintings with qualities that could not exist in the real world.


The second aspect, which Repin borrows on heavily from the humanist revisions found during the renaissance, is the way he paints his characters. The painting has some of the most lifelike representations of humans on canvas that you can find in art today. The level of detail used by the artist is amazing. Each character in the work of art has a unique quality about them. Repin has made sure to include all the different types of people who would have been part of the Ukrainian culture of the time. Both young and old men are depicted in the scene. Different races of people such as Caucasians and Asians are also included throughout the painting. Each character has a unique style of clothing allowing the viewer to make distinctions between the types of people they are. For instance the men who are fighters are dressed in rag type clothing and are depicted carrying weapons. The Asian man, who is writing the letter while the surrounding characters cheer him on, is dressed in regular street clothing that would not be fit for battle. The group is shown as a rough bunch, some with wounds from battle, others with shaved heads, and some are smoking. Repin has captured a feeling of camaraderie through the facial expressions and posture of his characters.


The thirteen years it took Repin to put together an accurate historical portrayal of the “Zaporozhian Cossacks of Ukraine Writing a Letter in Reply to the Sultan of Turkey” paid off. The painting has been hailed as one of the great Ukrainian works in history and remains a source of pride throughout the country to this day.

While the painting has received critical acclaim in the Ukraine, it is not as well known outside of the country. The result is a conclusion that either the painting is not as good as its critics suggest, or that the government has kept pieces such as Repin’s too secluded from the rest of the world to realize the attention they deserve. His use of renaissance style painting with his own touch gives the painting a classic look and feel. The end result is a story told on canvas that will be available to the public to enjoy for all time. The work not only shows Repin’s wonderful skill as an artist, but also gives the viewer a teasing glimpse of what the writing of the Cossacks letter might have been like.



1. Gregorovich, Andrew. Elias Repin Master Painter from Ukraine. http://www.infoukes.com/culture/paintings/repin/

2. Gregorovich, Andrew. The Cossak Letter "The Most Defiant Letter!". http://www.infoukes.com/history/cossack_letter/



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