Ilya Repin was born on July 24, 1844 near Chuguyev in the province of Kharkov. His father was a military settler, which meant the lowest (after serfs) social group in the society. Ilya's parents noticed his fondness of painting rather early and sent him to the local corps of surveyors to study. When the corps left the area quite soon, Repin went to a local private studio to become an icon-painter. A year later, he began to travel around the province painting icons. He was fifteen at that time. Gradually he decided to get a special education and to become a professional artist. When he accumulated some money, he went to the Art Academy of St. Petersburg and entered it in 1864. There he made friends with a number of prominent men, including such known personalities as I.N. Kramskoy and V.D. Polenov.
In the May of 1865, Ilya Repin was awarded with a silver medal for his study 'Angel of Death Kills All First-begotten Egyptians'. Thus he officially received the status of a free-lance painter. In the November of 1871, Repin won a big golden medal, the rank of a first-class artist, and the grant to study abroad for six years. However, he stayed in Russia for a while to create his masterpiece 'Boatmen on the Volga'. The picture was a riot at the world exhibitions both in Vienna (1873) and in Paris five years later according to contemporary periodicals.
By the time Repin started his travels abroad, the centre of artistic life moved from Rome to Paris. The artist and his family settled in the latter in the October of 1873 and spent three years there. In the April of 1874, Paris housed the first exhibition of the Impressionists. Although paying due respect to colour possibilities of plein air painting, Repin was aware of distortion of the line. Subdued by the effects of the lights and darks, the line lost its tangibility in Impressionist painting. Repin could not understand the reason to abandon expressiveness of plastic forms; in order to find some via media, he created a series of such plein air scenes as 'Picnic' and 'On the Turfen Bench'. Being abroad and able to compare pictures of Russian and foreign painters, Repin started thinking about original features of the Russian character and its manifestation in art. He painted 'Sadko in the Realm of Undersea'. For the first time in Russian painting, the artist turned to a scene from national folklore.
Although fond of topics, typical of French painting of 1870-s, Repin was going his own way, concentrating on the drama of his pictures. For him, most important was a depth of realism in the scene, psychological oneness of his characters, and development of intrigue. In the July of 1876, Repin returned to Russia, enriched with new experience, which manifested in his monumental work 'Procession in the Province of Kursk'. According to I.E. Grabar, the picture 'provided Repin with the reputation of the best Russian painter'.
After his arrival in Moscow in 1877, Repin created a number of masterpieces, including 'Czarevna Sofia', 'Zaporizhye Cossacs', 'Procession in the Province of Kursk', 'Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan', and many others. His gallery of portraits reveals a whole world of his gifted contemporaries, such as Stassov, Tolstoy, Pirogov, and Musorgskiy. Besides, Repin worked as a book illustrator. Most successful examples of his pictures of the kind were made to illuminate books by N. Gogol, T. Shevchenko, A. Chekhov, A. Pushkin, and N. Nekrasov. In the November of 1891, the artist's personal exhibition started in the Art Academy of St. Petersburg and continued in Moscow the next year. The event provided I. Repin with even more fame and success. His pictures were bought at enormous prices and even the Czar Alexander III acquired one of them – 'Zaporizhye Cossacks'. Ilya Yefimovich continued to work fruitfully. In the November 25, 1893, he was made a professor of painting while a week later he became an academician.
In the May of 1900, he went to the world art exhibition to Paris as a member of its international jury. In the April of 1901, the Russian government ordered Repin to paint 'The Parade Meeting of the State Council to Commemorate Its Centenary'. In the process of titanic work on the picture, Repin created a whole gallery of studies – numerous statesmen's portraits, acknowledged masterpieces at once. They say that the above studies are more valuable than the resulting picture itself. In 1907, Repin left the Academy and settled in his estate near St. Petersburg. From there, he sometimes visited his native Chuguyev, Lev Tolstoy, or the Crimea. He even made short trips abroad. When the Russian Empire collapsed in 1917, Repin in his residence found himself in Finland and did not return to Russia. He continued to work abroad and held his personal exhibition in Tampere, Finland, 1922), and Prague (Czech Republic, 1924). In the end of May in 1925, there was exhibition of his works in the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg. Having caught a severe cold and refusing from proper treatment, Ilya Repin died on September 29, 1930.