Portrait of Dmitry Mendeleev Wearing the Edinburgh University Professor Robe

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Portrait of Dmitry Mendeleev Wearing the Edinburgh University Professor Robe, Ilya Repin, 1885

Ilya Repin used art as a ticket out of his native Ukraine, but during his studies in St. Petersburg and voyages to Western Europe he always painted the common people who reminded him of his upbringing. After receiving a taste of notoriety, Repin abandoned the themes of the Realists to create portraits of Russian nobility. Repin shifted theme again later in his life and began to paint artists of all kinds, be they composers, painters, authors, or scientists. With Portrait of Dmitry Mendeleev Wearing the Edinburgh University Professor Robe, Repin formed a comparison between himself and the Siberian-born creator of the modern Periodic Table.

With a blank background and the company of only books, Repin conveys that Mendeleev’s entire life revolves around academia. His robe colors belong to a specific university, but the graduation cap applies more universally to the academic world. While the books and cap—Repin’s representations of scholarship—exist in black and white, Mendeleev himself is bright and adorned with color. The scientist provides the painting’s light, and his ingenuity stands out from dark surroundings. Repin only needs to give Mendeleev a blank background because the scientist’s genius and achievement fill the canvas on their own.

Repin often painted musicians and academics as a statement that all who add to the world fit into the same category. Painters, composers, and scientists who push the boundaries of their fields and share creations have a common purpose and gift. With the somehow emotional black background and vibrant robes, Repin tells his audience that Mendeleev’s endeavors are beautiful; they are art.

Repin does not need magnificent landscapes in the background to prove his subject’s greatness, because the painting’s radiance lies in Mendeleev's facial expression and its depth within his mind. The scene may initially feel melancholy, but, if one looks at Mendeleev’s face with enough attention, one sees that his mind contains more than the average person can experience. The painting’s viewers are not meant to pity him for his isolation in a dark room, because the light exists within him. If anything, we viewers should envy Mendeleev.

Repin draws out beauty and depth from a scene with the potential to bore. Through this act, Repin proves that he does in fact liken to Mendeleev, because the two men share the genius of innovation.

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