The Volga Boatmen is a famous grand canvas (131,5 × 281 cm) by Ilya Repin, painted in 1870-73.
There is realism and there is symbolism in the picture. It has been endlessly analysed and reproduced, and over the years it has been attached to another great piece of Russian cultural heritage, the Volga Boatmen song, performed by Shaliapin, the Read Army Choir and Glen Miller too.
Still, a detail or two remain unexplained.
One curious little fragment is the little bird in the bottom left corner of the painting. It is shimmering in the bright sunlight. He stands on the sandbank looking at the approaching band of barge-haulers.
The colours of the bird are strikingly similar to the sunlit central figure of the composition, 'Lar'ka' (Ларька) the young blond burlak, who is adjusting his harness irritatedly while looking ahead and at the sun.
Is there a symbolic connection between the bird and the man? What is it? Is it a representation of God? Or the elusive Blue Bird of happiness? I have my theories but was hoping to find an explanation in critical writings or memoirs — and couldn't.
And what is the bird? I've used several bird identifiers, including the RSPB site, to find out. It could be a wader but waders commonly have long legs and beaks, unlike the bird in the picture. And waders usually come in flocks. It may be a temminck (RSPB description), but it does not appear on the Volga. A common European and Russian bird that is often seen everywhere is a wagtail (picture), and they usually forage alone.
A wagtail, in Russian трясогузка (literally, tail, bottom shaker) is often associated with fickleness, or diffidence, or irresponsible behaviour. How does this apply here, if it is a wagtail, I don't know. The mystery remains.
The painting in high definition can be seen on Repin's internet gallery and on Wikipedia. His signature is lower right. Other birds, presumably gulls, are seen top right. The small bird is at lower left.