A Painting a Day in Support of the NEA: Repin's Portrait of Mussorgsky

My protest of Trump's proposal to cut funding to the NEA and other arts organizations continues. Every day I will post a great work of art as a reminder of what could easily be lost in the shuffle of more "useful" government spending.

Here is the great Russian painter Ilya Repin's famous portrait of the equally famous Russian composer, Modest Mussorgsky (1881). Painted only a few days before Mussorgsky's death, it is an amazing psychological portrait of a tortured, tragically flawed, yet oddly dignified artist. Mussorgsky was a member of "The Mighty Five," a group of Russian nationalist composers who more or less put Russian music on the map (also included Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin, Balakirev, and Cui). Sadly, Mussorgsky was riddled with self-doubt and drank himself into oblivion, almost stifling his outsized talent and revolutionary sensibilities. Repin recognized a uniquely Russian character in Mussorgsky, as we see from the hollow stare and his bedraggled appearance. Yet even so, he strikes a defiant pose, as if aware that he has a powerful message that he will never be able to share with the world. He is a portrait of neglect and ridicule, yet he seems conscious of his worth, even when he most denies it. A bottle might be in one of his hands, just out of view, but eternity is in his grasp--though sadly, it might take his death to reach it. Today, Mussorgsky's opera Boris Godunov is in the standard repertoire, as is his haunting evocation of Halloween, A Night on Bald Mountain, and Ravel's orchestration of his beautiful piano suite, Pictures at an Exhibition. This painting, too, is a kind of orchestration of the man himself, who only existed in an unfinished piano sketch--showing us the face he presented to society, and the one that slumbered beneath--visible only in his music.