The Paris Review

Staff Picks: Portraiture, Patriarchy, Public Works

Ilya Repin, Vsevolod Mikhailovich Garshin, 1884.

It is my habit, wandering through the seemingly logicless branching of the Met’s European painting rooms, to collect body parts from portraits, to take certain striking features and make them a synecdoche of the genius of their painter. Goya, for instance, is a masterful painter of hands; the Dutch painter Frans Hals is one of the great artists of the mouth. The course of this habit, though, always leads me to one, in Gallery 827 at the Met. Most of the painting is rendered in the smudgy, conspicuous manner of nineteenth-century Impressionism, but the eyes are almost frighteningly photo-realistic, as if Repin had intentionally blurred the rest of the picture for the shock of the eyes, their bracing directness and incontrovertible sadness. Entirely redundantly, the caption informs us that Garshin would throw himself down a stairwell four years later. Portraiture is usually a contest—the subject wants to modulate, manage what they give away, while the artist wants everything. The eyes, in Repin’s portrait, are where that contest collapses, a tear in the fabric where Garshin’s unadulterated self floods out and buries Repin’s brush.

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