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Vereshchagin, Vasily

Category: Artist and sculptor

Portrait of the Artist Vasily Vereshchagin, 1883 Ivan Kramskoy

Vasily Vasilyevich Vereshchagin (Russian: Васи́лий Васи́льевич Вереща́гин, October 26, 1842 – April 13, 1904), was one of Russia’s most famous war artists and one of the first Russian artists to be widely recognised abroad.

Although classified as a ‘war artist’, Vereshchagin painted numerous beautifully detailed scenes of other cultures and their dress and pursuits. 

Furthermore, he painted war with the intention of graphically displaying its horrors and its aftermath. 

There was no glory or victory scenes in his paintings, they depicted with terrifying realism what ‘defeat’ could mean and what war entailed.  The graphic nature of his realist scenes led many of them never to be printed or exhibited.

The town of Vereshchagino in Perm Krai is named after him, as well as a minor planet, 3410 Vereshchagin, discovered by Soviet astronomer Lyudmila Zhuravlyova in 1978.

Defeated

Life

Vereshchagin was born in 1842 as the middle of three brothers. His father was a landowner of noble birth and from his mother he inherited Tatar blood.

 

1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Vereshchagin, Vassili Vassilievich

Vereshchagin, Vassili Vassilievich (1842-1904), Russian artist and traveller, was born at Tcherepovets, in the government of Novgorod, on the 26th of October 1842. ….

When he was eight years old he was sent to Tsarskoe Selo to enter the Alexander cadet corps, and three years later he entered the naval school at St Petersburg, making his first voyage in 1858.

 


Vereshchagin served on the frigate Kamchatka, which sailed to Denmark, France and Egypt. 

Execution of arsonists

 Artistic training

 

Vereshchagin graduated first in the list from the naval school, but left the service immediately to begin the study of drawing in earnest. 

Two years later, in 1863, he won a medal from the St Petersburg Academy for his Ulysses Slaying the Suitors.

In 1864, he proceeded to Paris, where he studied under Jean-Léon Gérôme.

In the Paris Salon of 1866, he exhibited a drawing of Dukhobors chanting their Psalms. In the next year, he was invited to accompany General Konstantin Kaufman's expedition to Turkestan.

He was granted the rank of ensign. His heroism at the siege of Samarkand from June 2–8, 1868 resulted in an award of the Cross of St George, (4th class).

He was an indefatigable traveller, returning to St Petersburg in late 1868, to Paris in 1869, back to St Petersburg later in the year, and then back to Turkestan via Siberia at the end of 1869.  He also travelled in the Himalayas, India and Tibet in 1873, and again in India in 1884.

The Taj Mahal Mausoleum in Agra State Tretyakov Gallery Moscow

Studio and exhibitions

Monks at the Door of a Mosque. 1870s

In 1871, he established an atelier in Munich and gave a solo exhibition of his works at the Crystal Palace in London in 1873.   

After a period of hard work in Paris and Munich he exhibited some of his Turkestan pictures in St Petersburg in 1874, among them two which were afterwards suppressed on the basis that they were simply too shocking – too realistic. 

" The Apotheosis of War," showed a pyramid of skulls and was dedicated " to all conquerors, past, present and to come".  The painting  " Left Behind," showed a scene of a dying soldier deserted by his fellows.

The official reason that they were denied a showing is that ‘they portrayed the Russian military in a poor light’.  But what light can be shed on death, misery, pain and defeat that is not poor?  Vereshchagin is probably unique at the time for not glorifying war.  Paintings were often used for propaganda in an attempt to fire recruits into enlisting in a patriotic and unthinking act for their country.  Who would want to fight after seeing these scenes?

Vereshchagin  was a believer in God and a Christian, why didn’t he paint religious scenes or more ‘uplifting’ works?  He said:

 "I loved the sun all my life, and wanted to paint sunshine. When I happened to see warfare and say what I thought about it, I rejoiced that I would be able to devote myself to the sun once again. But the fury of war continued to pursue me."

The Road of the War Prisoners, 1878-1879

In other words, it was as if his destiny pursued him.  That was what he was destined to paint.  Later in 1882, Vereshchagin’s exhibition in Berlin was visited by German Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke the Elder. Vereshchagin deliberately led Moltke to his painting The Apotheosis of War.

The picture evoked a sort of confusion in the Field Marshal. After his visit to the exhibition, Moltke issued an order forbidding German soldiers to visit it. The Austrian war minister did the same. He also declined the artist's offer to let Austrian officers see his pictures free of charge at the 1881 exhibition in Vienna.

In Russia, a ban on exhibitions of Vereshchagin’s work was also enforced, as well as a ban on reproductions of them in books and periodicals.

Vereshchagin  was understandably upset about this censorship of his work.  He even burned three of his paintings, The Forgotten Soldier, They Have Encircled, and Pursue and They Entered.

But there are enough of his works left to show how graphically he depicted war at its most brutal.  It should also be remembered that to have painted them at all he would have had to have been in the very thick of the action, and to have had a very good memory.

Russo–Turkish War

With the start of the Russo-Turkish War (1877–1878), Vereshchagin left Paris and returned to active service with the Imperial Russian Army. He was present at the crossing of the Shipka Pass and at the Siege of Plevna, where his brother was killed. He was dangerously wounded during the preparations for the crossing of the Danube near Rustchuk. At the conclusion of the war, he acted as secretary to General Skobelev at San Stefano.

World fame

1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Vereshchagin, Vassili Vassilievich

They Celebrate, 1872

After the war he settled at Munich, where he produced his war pictures so rapidly that he was freely accused of employing assistants.

The sensational subjects of his pictures, and their didactic aim - the promotion of peace by a representation of the horrors of war - attracted a large section of the public, not usually interested in art, to the series of exhibitions of his pictures in Paris in 1881 and subsequently in London, Berlin, Dresden, Vienna and other cities.

He aroused much controversy by his series of three pictures of a Roman execution (the Crucifixion), of sepoys blown from the guns in India, and of the execution of Nihilists in St Petersburg.


Crucifixion by the Romans (1887) - Detail

As such all brutality, all cruelty, all hate and senseless acts of violence were abhorred by Vereshchagin.

Dervishes

He was also no supporter of imperialism, excessive power, excessive displays and actions of imperialistic excess.

He painted several scenes of imperial rule in British India, for example and his epic portrayal of The State Procession of the Prince of Wales into Jaipur in 1876 is thought to be the third largest painting in the world. In 1882–1883, he again travelled to India, but his interest was not just imperial India; he painted fakirs and many of the old tribal peoples with a keen eye for detail.

By the late 19th century, Vereshchagin had gained popularity, not only in Russia, but also abroad and his name never left the pages of the European and American press.

Exposing racism

 

Another aspect of Vereshchagin’s works is his complete lack of either racism or any form of imperialistic or patronising portrayal of other cultures.  The attention to detail and the apparent accuracy of his depictions are marvellous.  He was a most avid observer.

It is as if he wanted to contrast the disastrous and brutal effects of domination, war and power; with the dignity, richness , and sheer magnificence of the cultures that imperialism sought to suppress or conquer.

'Look', his paintings say, 'maybe these peoples have something to teach us'.

A journey in Syria and Palestine in 1884 furnished him with a much discussed set of subjects from the New Testament. Vereshchagin's paintings caused controversy over his portrayal of the figure of Christ with what was thought at the time to be ‘an unseemly realism’. His depiction of Jesus's features was thought to be ‘excessively vulgar’ and ‘over-emphatically Semitic in ethnicity’

There is something both sad and horrifying in these assessments. 

 

Jesus was Jewish.  He probably looked exactly like today's Arabs look, very probably dark skinned, very brown eyes, rugged features. 

Deep in Vereshchagin’s heart was a great love for the common man and a deep sympathy for his forced or unwitting constant involvement in the war games of his ‘masters’.    

The "1812" series on Napoleon's Russian campaign, on which Vereshchagin also wrote a book, seems to have been inspired by Tolstoi's War and Peace, and was painted in 1893 in Moscow, where the artist eventually settled.

Death

Vereshchagin was in the Far East during the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894–1895, and was with the Russian troops in Manchuria during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900.

In 1901, he visited the Philippines, in 1902 the United States and Cuba, and in 1903, Japan. During the Russo-Japanese War, he was invited by Admiral Stepan Makarov to join him aboard Makarov's flagship, Petropavlovsk.

On April 13, 1904, Petropavlovsk struck two mines while returning to Port Arthur and sank, taking with it most of the crew, including both Admiral Makarov and Vereshchagin. Vereshchagin's last work, a picture of a council of war presided over by Admiral Makarov, was recovered almost undamaged.

The observation we have pertains to this event.

 

Observations

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