What Makes a Masterpiece?

Truth in art.

When Velázquez exhibited his portrait of Juan de Pareja at the Congregazione dei Virtuosi al Pantheon in 1650, the picture “gained such universal applause that in the opinion of all the painters of different nations, everything else seemed like painting, but this alone like truth.” I love Velázquez for this rare quality: the ability to transcend his medium, even while using it so sublimely. One doesn’t often encounter this ability, but we are fortunate in New York to have several examples of it. Among my very favorites is Repin’s portrait of the short story writer Vsevolod Mikhailovich Garshin.

repin paintings
Ilia Efimovich Repin, Vsevolod Mikhailovich Garshin, 1884. Oil on canvas, 35 x 27 1/4 in. Gift of Humanities Fund Inc., 1972. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

To a viewer who is unfamiliar with the work of the great Russian painter Ilia Repin (1844–1930), this probing portrait of Garshin may appear photographic, especially in a small black and white reproduction. I assure you, it is wonderfully painted. It is the rare type of canvas that loses its self-consciousness as a painting, while retaining the sensuality of the paint. Repin’s painterly technique does not obtrude upon the subject; the artist’s hand is evident, but not distracting. He is like a musician who allows you to experience the music first, though you are quite aware that the music cannot exist exclusive of the musician, or his notes. He tastefully does not draw attention to his technique, as Giovanni Boldini so often did to his detriment. The brush is used in service of the subject, beautifully descriptive and probing, capturing what is essential to the subject with an economy of means. Repin is not merely a mirror that reflects; he is an artist before nature, selecting and distilling the very essence of his subject. Garshin’s intense gaze, so compelling and so alive, is more than paint on canvas; it is the visual perception of another living soul. This is not the mindless visual description of a man. This painting retains the integrity of the individual. It is far beyond description; it is art.

There are many paintings that painstakingly record the details of their subject, missing nothing except what is most important, the life, the truth about the subject. To do this an artist needs to be able to select, to perceive what is important and what is not, and to record it accordingly—beautifully. Art is a thing of the mind, not of the hand. This is why I love this portrait so very much; it reflects the painter’s mind while embodying the soul of its subject.

Repin is a painter’s painter as well. Observe the play of brushstrokes that make up the books, papers, and desk. Repin loves his brush strokes, but he knows their place in a painting. When one sees a Repin, one sees a visual feast of strokes, texture, color, and design. This particular painting has a very straightforward design that is appropriate for its subject. Anyone familiar with Repin’s Zaporozhye Cossacks Writing a Mocking Letter to the Turkish Sultan (1880–81) is aware of the scale of Repin’s tremendous compositional abilities. Unfortunately, there are precious few paintings of his in this country. We are fortunate enough to have this remarkable portrait at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In the gallery where it hangs, you will see many paintings, but in Repin alone will you see truth.

This article appeared in the Fall 2001 print issue of LINEA. James Harrington is a painter living in Queens, NY.

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