I’ve always thought it would be fun to be invited to a salon – a high society gathering in 19th century St. Petersburg – but my affinity for blue jeans, lack of obvious talents and… well, being born in the wrong century have put a lid on this endeavor.
That’s one of the many reasons I love Penaty, the fantastic mansion once owned by Ilya Repin, a famous Russian artist and head of the Russian Academy of Arts. Located about a thirty-minute drive from St. Petersburg in Repino, a small seaside place named after the artist, it’s a trip back to the heyday of Russian classical painting – and a voyeur's delight.
Repin bought the house in 1899 and completely redesigned it, hence its unique architecture and atmosphere. You walk up to the front gate, decorated with images of the penates – the ancient Roman gods of home comfort – and find yourself in front of a wooden house like you’ve never seen before. Russian folk art meets Egyptian influences and “northern modernism” in this studio-slash-home-slash-center of artistic thought. Lots of windows and glass domes let in as much natural light as the gloomy St. Petersburg weather can produce.
Inside, you can walk through Repin’s living quarters, decorated with original paintings and personal belongings, marvel at his green-felt desk and imagine yourself among the luminaries of his time at the custom-made rotating dinner table that allowed the guests to serve themselves.
The second floor is the artist's study, complete with art on aisle stands, paintbrushes and soft rugs all around, which feels as if the artist has just stepped out for a minute. It’s the kind of place that feels like if you just sat on that tapestry-covered couch, insights would find their way to you. Light floods the space through the glass ceiling. It probably feels even more magical when it rains.
Penaty is fun to visit year round, but I think it’s particularly spectacular now, before the leaves are all gone. The surrounding park that Repin designed himself is almost as enchanting as the house itself, with its winding alleys and shady ponds inspired by the works of Manet. It’s a perfect place to experience one of those moments of quiet contemplation that once inspired one of Russia’s greatest artists.
Opening hours: Wednesday to Sunday, from 10.30 am till 5 pm (6 pm in the summer).
Getting there: Take a train from Finlandsky Railroad Station to Repino, or the bus #211 from Chernaya Rechka metro station.