Disturbing Painting “Ivan the Terrible and His Son” Explained!

Ivan the Terrible and His Son cover image

What comes to  mind when you come across Ivan the Terrible and His Son?

The first time I came across this title, the following questions pooled in:

Who is Ivan? Why is he called Ivan the Terrible?

And why mention his son? Does his son not have a name?

There is a whole stream of thought that gushed in, but it reached its calm when I did some research and came across Ilya Repin’s painting!

Painting Ivan the Terrible and His Son was painted in the year 1885, oil on canvas. 

This rather grotesque and unnerving painting will leave you with a lot of questions. 

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Especially when you get to know the painting is based on real people, and a true incident! 

Yes, Ivan the Terrible is a historical figure from Russia, and there is a whole history behind him. 

And yes, that is his own son, laying dead in his arms, while his face displays a ghastly shock, almost as if his soul left his body! 

In this article, I have encapsulated a quick analysis of this painting where we will explore both a contextual and formal analysis of the art. 

Before we get into the painting, let us briefly look at the mastermind behind the artwork, Ilya Repin! 

Introducing the Artist: Ilya Repin

portrait of Ilya Repin.
Image: Wikimedia

Born in 1844, Ilya Yefiovich Repin grew up to be a realist Russian artist. 

His interest in art started at a very young age and that was further cultivated by being the apprentice of Ivan Bunakov. 

His education was from the Imperial Academy of Art, Saint Petersburg, where he met several artists and mentors. 

Repin’s artistic focus was on  paintings that revolved around social and political ideas, which conveniently resonated with the public. 

This is also why he was stuck to create  art in the realistic genre that represented and reflected real events happening in the society!

Ivan the Terrible and His Son is also such a realistic painting that he created showing a rather gruesome and shocking scene.

Let us now dive straight into it and focus on its story! 

Socio-Historical Context: Unveiling the Story Behind

portrait of the Tsar Ivan IV
Image: Britannica

To understand the painting Ivan the Terrible and His Son, it is extremely vital to know the story behind the painting. 

Who are the subjects of the painting—Ivan and his son?

What did Ivan do to procure that title of being “terrible”? And why does he have that unsettling expression on his face?

How did his son die? Is he mourning or is he in shock? 

What inspired Ilya Repin to paint such a ghoulish painting?

Well, to start with, Ivan was the Tsar of Russia for the years 1547 to 1584. 

Ivan IV Vasilyevich was commonly known as “Ivan Grozny” which also translated to “fearsome”. 

This term eventually turned to “terrible” and was then fixed with the terrifying Tsar’s name! 

But the term does not really mean someone who wants to instill fear in people with his power. 

Rather, in the Tsar’s time, this meant something more on the lines of awe-inspiring, great and incredible!

Before we get into the Ivan the Terrible and His Son painting, it is to be noted that the Tsar was part of many paintings. 

This was because of his commendable personality that a lot of people looked up to and admired, while at the same time recognizing his mental instabilities! 

Some scholarly sources even suggest that Ivan the Terrible might have even had bipolar disorder or something very similar. 

Because, it does not naturally come for someone to kill his own son!

The Story Behind the Painting 

Ivan Ivanovich was killed by his own father, which  became one of the most   historic stories in Russia. 

But the reason behind it has been explained through several different theories by different scholars. 

Most of them lead up to a common notion—that he had a lot of political differences with his son, that led to eventually killing him! 

Ivan the Terrible known for his temper and angry demeanor, but who would have thought it would lead to murder in cold blood?

Another common theory was that Ivan was approached by his son who accused him for pointing out his wife’s clothing choices and harassing her. 

Apparently, Yelena Sheremeteva, who was pregnant during the assault went through a miscarriage. 

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It is believed that when Ivan’s son intervened in the assault, his father charged at him and hit his head with a staff. 

With a bloody injury on his head, Ivan’s son survived for a few more days and then breathed his last! 

Probably the death of his son awakened Ivan’s consciousness and he was then filled with remorse and guilt. 

In fact, it is that guilt and remorse Repin has ever so brilliantly portrayed in Ivan the Terrible and His Son

What Was the Artist’s Inspiration? 

The tragic death of Ivan’s son took place in November 1581, but Repin created the painting in the 1880s. 

Ilya Repin was deeply fascinated by the representation of the “bloody”, that he had witnessed in other paintings and even in his society! 

He was heavily influenced by the bloodshed which was evidently a lot around him at the time. 

This exposure also contributed to his realistic genre style that Repin used in his paintings! 

His keen interest in political events in history led to him creating the Ivan the Terrible and His Son, along with other historical artworks. 

Repin was also heavily influenced by a musician Nokali Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov. 

Reping found a connection with the story of Ivan the Terrible and his son and one of his compositions called the Vengeance.

This composition played a major role in influencing Repin to create the painting as he pondered over how to make a visual representation of the same! 

Formal Analysis of Ivan the Terrible and His Son Painting

Now that we know the unnerving, utmostly chaotic and tragic story behind Ivan the Terrible and His Son, let us get into the formal analysis of the painting! 

We will look into two aspects of this painting mainly, which are, the subjects of the painting and the color and shades used by the artist.

1. Subject 

A close of the painting Ivan the Terrible and His Son
Image: Wikipedia

The most captivating part of the painting Ivan the Terrible and His Son got to be the subject itself. 

An older man with the bloodshot, grim eyes holding a young man, bleeding from the head and who appears dead. 

Personally, my attention was completely captured with Ivan’s hollow eyes, trying to express so many things. 

The eyes represent shock, remorse, shame, guilt, and a sense of detachment from the rest of the world. 

His mouth is covered, leaning onto his son’s head, which could also be depicting a kiss on his head. 

What is wonderful is that the terror does not leave the grief-stricken father’s eyes. 

The son lies there dead, but Repin’s brilliance is in showing his lifeless eyes, just gazing into nothingness. 

Two pairs of eyes showing very contrasting expressions. 

In fact, while one is filled with so many different emotions, the other’s gaze is turned to nothing because it is without life! 

The final embrace shown between the father and son will move every single human witnessing the painting!

(Suggested Read: The Swing Painting by Fragonard)

2. Hues and Shades 

The differently lit part of the painting Ivan the Terrible and His Son
Image: Wikipedia

It is impossible to not notice the color palette and the hues splendidly used by the artist. 

If you closely observe, the painting is divided into two shades and shadows, horizontally.

What can you see now?

The upper side is where Ivan is, and everything is darker, except his face and eyes being illuminated. 

And on the other hand, we have the son lying down taking over the lower space of the painting. 

This space as you can see is even more illuminated than the upper area and background. 

This depiction of light and darkness could be interpreted as who’s on the right and wrong too. 

Repin has balanced this play between dark and light shades to a perfect extent!

To Conclude: The Power of Melancholic Paintings 

A collage of three paintings where Ivan the Terrible was depicted.
Image: Wikimedia

This sad painting is sure to leave you weaving the story behind the scene in your head. 

Melancholic art holds so much power over the viewer because it connects with them like no other genre. 

You are drawn to it, to its mystery, to its despondency, to its tragedy! 

Ivan the Terrible and His Son represents a tragic story between a father and son, but also shows how too much power can make one blind! 

I would urge you to explore all other paintings of Ilya Repin as they are brilliant on every level, showcasing historical and political events. 

I hope this little article has helped in tickling the curious nerves of your brain so that you soon indulge in the painting and artist. 

This humble author will be soon here with the next one, next time! 

Frequently Asked Questions

Who is Ivan the Terrible in Ilya Repin’s painting?

Ivan the Terrible depicted in Ilya Repin’s painting is a Russian Tsar Ivan IV Vasilyevich. The painting is also inspired from a real life incident after Ivan the Terrible killed his own son.

What kind of art did Ilya Repin focus on making?

Ilya Repin was a portrait painter who focused on creating art which had historical and political relevance in the realistic genre.

Why was Ivan the Terrible and His Son controversial?

Because of the way it was depicted with so much brutality and blood it was controversial in the day. Also because some thought it to be anti-Russian for depicting the Tsar the way Repin did.

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