Sadko was the principle character in this tale, shown in this painting on the right. He was an adventurer and musician who did not pay his full respects to the Sea Tsar, who then stopped his ships as they crossed the sea.
Throwing their gold into the water did nothing to appease the Sea Tsar, so Sadko was forced to jump into the sea himself to appease him. The scene shown in the painting is when Sakdo has played music for the Sea Tsar and is offered a new bride in return; he picks from the line of sea maidens, then in the morning wakes up and returns to his wife.
With so much detail in the traditional tale, it is surprising that Repin could still make the image appealing and attention-grabbing. Instead of overwhelming the viewer, the amount of detail merely attracts the viewer to look closer and lose themselves in this fictional world that seems as though it could almost be real; an underwater kingdom long disappeared, full of riches and beauty. The painting and its subject earned Ilya Repin the reputation of being an 'academician'.
Ilya Repin plays with the use of light and colour much in the way of his contemporaries, the impressionists. However he wished his art to hold stronger moral meanings. It is not easy to see what moral meaning can be found in this painting, but as it shows a scene from a popular tale, perhaps the morality is overcome by the sharing of historical literature and culture. Having a meaning was important to Repin, and many of his paintings maintained a strongly moral tone.
Perhaps the moral in Sadko can be found from the fact that Sadko himself is shown gazing at the figure in the back, plainly dressed compared to all the other figures. However this may seem to a modern viewer, the meaning would have been very different over a hundred years ago, and even more different at the time of writing the original tale.
One of the most enchanting details about the painting is the sea life swimming and living among the humanoid figures. The fish and the plants seem to move; they are realistic and glow with the soft, diffused light that you get beneath the waves. The beautiful sea life is not the focal point of the picture and yet enriches it, filling the scene with more life and beauty, though it never comes close to overwhelming the viewer.
Ilya Repin painted during a transformative time in both art and history. He grew up in a military life through his family, though he never loved that life and did not speak of it fondly as an adult. At a young age he became fond of art, and grew into one of the most respected artists of him time with continuing influence to this day.
The mark of a true artist is the ability to bring a fantastic scene and paint it so that it seems to be real. Viewing 'Sadko and the Underwater Kingdom' by Ilya Repin gives the viewer that impression, and draws you down into its depths.