One of the great Russian masters that I feel is completely overlooked today is Vasily Vereshchagin (1842–1904). Perhaps the reason for this oversight is that he spent the majority of his career painting war scenes, many so grotesque that the public rejected them. Aside from these gruesome reminders of war, Vereshchagin painted many master works depicting the people and landscape of the Orient. He was hugely successful not only in Russia but throughout Europe and is considered one of the great master painters in the style of Orientalism. Vereshchagin won worldwide fame taking part in more than thirty solo exhibitions in the last decade of his life, often exhibiting in the most fashionable salons. In addition to his paintings he created documentary ethnographic drawings and was the author of a number of literary works.
Vereshchagin’s destiny with the military began in 1850 when, at the age of eight, his father enrolled him in the famous Alexandrovsky Cadet Military School at Tsarskoye Selo. From 1853 to 1860 he attended the Marine Military School in St. Petersburg, graduating at the top of his class with the rank of midshipman. Beginning in 1858 Vereshchagin began attending evening drawing classes at Ivan Kramskoy’s School for the Society for the Encouragement of the Arts. Immediately after graduating from military school in 1860, he entered the Imperial Academy to become a history painter. His father was so outraged by this that he cut all of Vereshchagin’s financial support. In 1863 his painting, Massacre of Penelope’s Suitors by the Returning Ulysses, was awarded the small silver medal by the Academy. This medal assured him the right to work as an artist and to not be obligated to return to military service under Russian law at the time. That same year Ivan Kramskoy led a rebellion of fourteen students who were also attending the Imperial Academy. These students, who became known as the Wanderers, demanded free choice in the theme for their paintings. Vereshchagin was very influenced by their idealism and went to great extremes to keep his own work equally as authentic as theirs throughout his career. I could not find any documentation that Vereshchagin actually graduated from the Academy, but in 1874 he was appointed as professor, but declined the appointment.
After a visit to Paris in 1864, Vereshchagin decided to study with one of the best – Jean-Léon Gérôme - at the Ēcole des Beaux-Arts. It was during this period that Vereshchagin was exposed to the Orientalist painting style through the work of not only Gérôme, but also other great painters working in the style such as Ferdinand Roybet and Leon Bonnat. After his tutelage under Gérôme, Vereshchagin embraced Orientalism and became one of the genre’s leading exponents. Considered a specialism of 19th-century academic art, not only in Russia but also in Europe, Orientalism was a branch of both Romanticism and Realism. Russian Orientalist paintings encompassed not just scenes of the Holy Land but also Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Balkans. The French Orientalist painters romanticized their work by creating scenes that were not necessarily based in reality, but rather in beauty. Vereshchagin brought his own unique stamp of reality to his paintings making them extremely authentic to the region and the people that he painted.
Though Vereshchagin did not become a naval officer, he took part in military actions in Turkestan, India, Africa and the Balkans. In 1867 he accompanied General Kaufman's expedition to Turkestan. In 1868 he joined the Russians defending the Samarkand fortress and received the Cross of St. George for bravery and courage. Vereshchagin felt he had to experience war from the point of view of the soldier in order to be able to truly create authentic scenes for his paintings. He hated war and regretted the enormous toll on human lives, but he was definitely called to tell its story. Many of his paintings also exposed the poverty and lack of civil rights of the people living in the Orient. The paintings Beggars in Samarkand, Opium Smokers, Sale of a Slave Child, Uzbek Woman in Tashkent and many others attracted just as much attention as the artist’s battle pieces. Altogether Vereshchagin spent three years in Turkestan and produced a number of war paintings. One such painting from this period, The Apotheosis of War (1871), portrayed a pyramid of skulls. On the bottom of the canvas Vereshchagin wrote “dedicated to all conquerors: past, present and those yet to come.” When this painting was exhibited in Berlin, German Field Marshal Helmuth Moltke, forbade German soldiers to see it because he felt it depicted the reality of war and would confuse the young soldiers. The Austrian war minister imposed restrictions on Vereshchagin’s 1881 Vienna exhibition. Russia also placed a ban on Vereshchagin’s exhibitions, as well as a ban on reproductions in books and periodicals. The artist took these unjust accusations badly and burned three of his paintings. For thirty years the Tsarist government did not acquire a single painting.
Despite his many hurtles Vereshchagin gained great popularity both in Russia and abroad by the late nineteen century. His name was often seen in both the European and American press. In fact, the well-known American novelist, Theodore Dreiser, created the main character in his novel, The Genius, based on Vereshchagin’s character. In 1877, Vereshchagin felt morally obligated to fight in the Russo-Turkish campaign where he was wounded several times. After the war he set up a studio in Munich and was extremely prolific. During this time he painted The State Procession of the Prince of Wales into Jaipur, which is considered to be the third largest painting in the world. Vereshchagin also painted a series of decorative works based on the people and scenes of Turkestan. Thirteen of these paintings were purchased by the great collector Pavel Tretyakov. In 1889 he settled in Moscow and spent the majority of the last 15 years of his life there. During this time Vereshchagin worked on a series of paintings and wrote a book devoted to Napoleon’s campaign and Russia’s courage during the war of 1812. In 1901 Vereshchagin was a nominee for the first Nobel Peace Prize.
Vereshchagin continued to travel until the last day of his life; visiting Syria, Palestine, America, the Philippines, Cuba and Japan. He was invited by Admiral Stepan Makarov to join him aboard the Petropavlovsk during the Russo-Japanese war. On April 13, 1904 the Petropavlovsk struck two mines and sank, taking with her most of the crew, including both Admiral Makarov and Vereshchagin. According to eyewitness accounts Vereshchagin spent the last minutes of his life calmly drawing the scene before him. Oddly enough, Vereshchagin's last painting, a picture of a council of war presided over by Admiral Makarov, was recovered almost undamaged. The Russo-Japanese war devastated Russia, where two-thirds of its entire fleet were lost. This great defeat set in motion an uprising against Tsarist Russia. In 1905, a year after Vereshchagin’s death, the first protest to overthrow the Tsarist reign began, which became known as Bloody Sunday.
About This Painting This painting, They Celebrate, is an excellent example of Vereshchagin’s unique approach as an artist. It’s interesting how he has set up the point of view in the painting as if you (the viewer) are standing in the crowd. It’s quite brilliant actually! It's fairly gross if you really see what they are celebrating - a bunch of heads on poles! Vereshchagin has created a “V” shape opening for us to peer into this scene. He has created a series of semi-circles on each side of the canvas that act almost like arms over the shoulders of these men. Note how the clothes of the men standing closest to the viewer are far more detailed than those of the men in the distance, which are very simplified. Note how the blue of the mosque is almost the same blue as the sky, creating a unified unit. This also creates atmospheric perspective and makes the mosque recede in the space.
About the Author:
Cathy Locke is an award-winning fine art painter, professor, and published writer, specializing in Russian art of the 19th and 20th centuries. She organizes annual art excursions to Russia every summer and is the editor of Musings-on-art.org.