Il'ya Yefimovich Repin (Chuguyev, Ukraine 1844 - Kuokalla 1930)

Portrait of Fedor Chaliapin

signed in Cyrillic and dated ‘20th May’; bears a further date ‘1888’ (lower left);
further inscribed (verso) and with various collector’s marks (recto & verso)
pencil on paper laid on board
33.8 x 25.5 cm (13¼ x 10 in)


'If I amounted to anything in life, it was as an actor and a singer. I was totally committed to my vocation. I had no other ruling passion whatever, no particular taste for anything other than the stage.’
-Fedor Chaliapin

In 1927, near the end of Fedor Ivanovich Chaliapin's (1873-1938) career, the newspaper Wiener Zeitung declared: ‘it is almost impossible to separate Chaliapin the singer from Chaliapin the actor. Each works for the other. Where the singer ends, the actor begins and vice-versa.’ Decades after his death, Chaliapin is still considered Russia’s greatest opera singer, his powerful and dynamic voice, together with his mesmerising stage presence and his superb acting ability, gave him a popularity second only to that of Enrico Caruso (1873-1921).

Chaliapin was born in Kazan in Tatarstan Russia on 13th February 1873. He received little early musical training but his talent led to his taking leading roles with a touring opera company in his teens, making his professional debut in 1890 when he joined the chorus of an opera company in Ufa. Coached by Dimitri Usatov (1847-1913), he made his first major career move in 1895 when he joined the opera company of the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, and then in 1896 when he accepted the invitation of Savva Mamontov to sing with the Moscow Private Opera, with whom he stayed until 1899. By this time he had met his first wife, the Italian ballet dancer Iola Tornaghi, whom he married on 27th July 1898. His time with the Moscow Private Opera cemented his artistic reputation. He sang such great roles as Varlaam in Modest Mussorgsky’s (1839-1881) Boris Godunov, Ivan the Terrible in Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s (1844-1908) The Maid of Pskov, and Holofernes in Valentin Serov’s (1865-1911) Judith.

By 1899 Chaliapin was viewed as a national treasure, signing contracts to sing at both the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg and at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, where he appeared regularly until 1914. He made his international debut in 1901 at Teatro La Scala, Milan in the title role of Arrigo Boito’s (1842-1918) Mefistofele. Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943), perhaps the first great influence on Chaliapin’s career, assisted him in preparation for the role. 1901 also marked the start of Chalipain’s friendship with the writer Maxim Gorky (1868-1936). It was Gorky who later ghostwrote Chaliapin’s autobiography Man and Mask.

La Scala’s production of Mefistofele was the first of Chaliapin’s many tours in Europe and the United States; debuting at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City in 1907, at the Paris Opera in 1908 and in London in 1913. During the following years Chaliapin created many memorable roles including the title characters in Rachmaninov’s Aleko, Anton Rubinstein’s (1829-1894) The Demon and Jules Massenet’s (1842-1912) Don Quixote which was considered his last great role. Chaliapin’s other roles during this period included Salieri in Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mozart and Salieri, and Dosifei in Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina. He also returned to play the role of Boris Godunov at the Metropolitan Opera in 1921; the production was such a success that it sparked an eight-year run.

Following the 1918 Bolshevik takeover, the harsh everyday life and psychological climate dominant during the Civil War took its toll on Chaliapin, and consequently he made up his mind to leave the Soviet Union for good on 29th June 1922, eventually settling in Paris. His years in exile were not without personal anguish for a man so strongly identified with Russia: before his break with the Soviet Union he had given numerous concerts in Russia for workers, and in Europe he had sung to raise money for starving Russians during the Civil War. In 1927 he was stripped of his title of ‘People’s Artist of the Soviet Union’, which had been bestowed on him in 1918, having been previously awarded the title of ‘Soloist to His Majesty’, in 1911 by the then Tsar Nicholas II (1868-1918), the highest honour for a singer in Imperial Russia.

Chaliapin died of leukaemia in Paris on 12th April 1938, where he was buried in the Batignolles Cemetery. His body stayed there until 1984 when his remains were transferred from Paris to Moscow with an elaborate ceremony, and re-buried in the Novodevichy Cemetery.