Vasily Vereshchagin: Master of Russian Orientalism
Russian artist, soldier and political controversialist Vasily Vereshchagin (1842–1904), was a moral chronicler of Russian military history. Outfitted with an easel and pistol Vereshchagin used his artwork to protest against the aggressive advances made by Imperial Russia towards its eastern and southern neighbors during the nineteenth century. He circled half of the world’s continents and participated in two wars. He traveled not for the sake of recreation or entertainment but spent the majority of his career painting war scenes, many so grotesque that the public rejected them. His battle canvases with pacifist subtexts and drawings from exotic countries served as the artist’s main topics. For more than ten years Vereshchagin lived outside of Russia in Munich and Paris, with extended visits to New York, Tokyo and Istanbul. He was hugely successful not only in Russia but throughout Europe and is considered one of the greatest master painters of 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 was born in the town of Cherepovets into the family of a Russian landowner of noble descent. 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 in Tsarskoye Selo, Russia. Established on May 30, 1830 for upbringing and education of minor orphans and sons of noble veterans. From 1853 to 1860 Vereshchagin attended the Marine Military School in St. Petersburg. In 1858, at the age of sixteen he made his first voyage, serving on the frigate Kamchatka, sailing to Denmark, France and Egypt. Though Vereshchagin graduated at the top of his class with the rank of midshipman, he could not overcome his passion for art. Beginning in 1858 Vereshchagin began attending evening drawing classes at the School for the Society for the Encouragement of the Arts given by Ivan Kramskoy (1837-87). 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 a small silver medal by the Academy. This medal assured Vereshchagin the right to work as an artist and to not be obligated to return to military service under Russian law at the time.
An historic restructuring happened during the time Vereshchagin was a student at the Imperial Academy. In 1862, an International Exhibition held in London resulted in the Imperial Academy being slammed for producing artists who lacked individuality. Art critics blasted Russian art as “being devoid of any originality,”1 igniting the concerns of many students at the Imperial Academy. The critics argued that Russian art needed to shed its “cosmopolitan garb” and become focused on native themes. After nearly a century of being forced to create themes that had nothing to do with Russia these artists had had enough. In 1863, fourteen students led by Kramskoy, left behind their potential degrees at the Academy and moved into a large common apartment, sharing everything even their earnings. This group became famous and were known as the Wanderers, or Peredvizhniki in Russian. The Wanderers gave birth to a new social artistry that depicted the lower classes and dealt with issues of social injustices. 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. Vereshchagin left the Academy during this period and coincidentally inherited enough money from his uncle to allow him the possibility of continuing his education outside of Russia. There is no documentation that he actually graduated from the Imperial Academy, but in 1874 he was appointed as professor there, but declined the appointment.
After a visit to Paris in 1864, Vereshchagin decided to study at the Ēcole des Beaux-Arts for two years with one of the best artists of the day, Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904). 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 (1840-1920) and Léon Bonnat (1832-1922). Considered a specialism of nineteenth 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 beautiful scenes of fantasy that were not based in reality. In 1866 Vereshchagin exhibited some of his works at the Salon de Paris and received favorable reviews. At this time the artist made the decision to leave behind French Orientalism in order forge a more authentic path. Luckily for Vereshchagin, fate stepped in giving him a front row seat to experience the region for himself, which gave his paintings a unique stamp of authenticity. He wrote in one of his letters: “I escaped Paris… Like from some kind of prison and being liberated I began to paint with fierce and fury.”
Vereshchagin’s first taste of war came at the age of twenty-six when, in 1868, he accompanied the Russian Army under General Konstantin Kaufman, (1818-82) on an expedition to modern-day Uzbekistan. Historians refer to this period in time as “The Great Game,” to describe the Russian and British political and diplomatic confrontation over Afghanistan and neighboring territories of Central and Southern Asia from 1830 to 1895. This conflict that resulted in the constant threat of war between the two empires; Russia was fearful of British commercial and military inroads into Central Asia, and Britain was fearful of losing India to Russia, its “jewel in the crown.” When Hajji Nawab Kalb Ali Khan Bahadur (1832-87) declared war on the Russian Empire in 1868, the Governor-General of Turkestan, Konstantin von Kaufman, needed a cartographer for the Russian army. Vereshchagin offered to join the forces as a volunteer. He was granted a junior officer rank and in 1868 departed for Samarkand, at which time his father finally forgive his son.
Vereshchagin took command of the fortress in Uzbekistan during a raid after Kaufman left to defend the emir. There were 500 Russian soldiers, half of which were wounded, left to fight an army of thousands. When Kaufman returned, the soldiers confessed, “If it had not been for Vasily Vasilyevich, we would not have been here anymore.”2 The general was so moved that he gave Vereshchagin his own Cross of St. George for bravery, which Vereshchagin wore proudly for the rest of his life. This experience marked a significant turning point in Vereshchagin’s voice as an artist. He repeatedly traveled to areas of conflict not only to observe but to play an active role, as he felt it was impossible to depict the reality of war without taking part in it personally. “It would be impossible,” Vereshchagin wrote, “to achieve the aim I have set myself, to give society a picture of war as it really is, by observing battles through binoculars from a comfortable distance. I have to feel and go through it all myself. I have to participate in the attacks, storms, victories and defeats, experience the cold, disease and wounds. I must not be afraid to sacrifice my flesh and my blood, otherwise my pictures will mean nothing.”3
Vereshchagin became famous for his realistic battle scenes and depictions of the people of Asia. In one of his first major paintings, The Apotheosis of War (1871), Vereshchagin painted hundreds of skulls on top of each other, creating a pyramid. In the corner of the painting as a protest against war he wrote, “to all conquerors, past, present and to come.” When this painting was exhibited in Berlin, German Field Marshal Helmuth Moltke (1800-91), 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.
During the 1800s the rule of reason prevailed in the civilized West, while irrationality and barbarism reigned supreme in the East. As an artist Vereshchagin felt called to document this raw reality. An indefatigable traveler, Vereshchagin returned to Turkestan in 1869, went to the Himalayas, India and Tibet in 1873, then back to India in 1884. Along the way he confronted all sorts of difficulties, from almost freezing to death in the Himalayas to falling ill with fever from the tropical heat. This tenacious man overcame all obstacles and managed to paint more than 150 sketches during this period. In this early work Vereshchagin focused most of his efforts on depicting the brutal business of war: from countless paintings of the dead or dying, to barbarians holding up the severed heads of various imperial officers. In his painting, They Celebrate (1872), Vereshchagin brilliantly sets up the point-of-view as if you (the viewer) are standing in the crowd. As we look into the center of the painting we see they are celebrating a long line of decapitated human heads on the tops of tall wooden poles. When his work was exhibited in the West many people were shocked by the atrocities and realism. Military officials, both Russian and German, feared how this authentic depiction would affect recruits and demanded Vereshchagin’s work be pulled from public display. Even his friend General Kaufman accused Vereshchagin of falsifying history. It is interesting to note that Vereshchagin never painted the portraits of any generals.
Vereshchagin was one of the first painters to depict the cultural life and landscape of Central Asia to northern India. He is responsible for progressing the style of painting known as Orientalism to new heights. Perhaps as a form of critical realism, which was popular at the time, Vereshchagin joined other Russian Orientalists in creating an aesthetic as well as an ideological standpoint. While studying with Gérôme in Paris he learned compositional skill, as well as a wide variety of painting techniques. Unlike the French Orientalists Vereshchagin painted this colorful region through the eyes of beggars and slaves as a commentary on its poverty and lack of civil rights. The paintings Opium Smokers (1868), Beggars in Samarkand (1870) and Sale of a Slave Child (1872), as well as many others, attracted just as much attention as the artist’s war pieces. The Russian painter created many masterpieces of architectural landmarks including the Taj Mahal (1876), which depicts a time when the Yamuna River was clean and clear. Vereshchagin painted numerous portraits of Indians, nomadic people and Muslims; many of these people were dressed well enough to look like members of the British aristocracy. Vereshchagin was enamored with the beauty of the Himalayas and the Tibetan plateau. His masterful landscape paintings, such as Glacier on the Road from Kashmir to Laddakh (1875), made it obvious that he saw more of India in the nineteenth century than many Indians would in the twenty-first century.
During his sixty-two years of life the artist repeatedly changed houses and countries of residence. In 1871, he married Elizaveta Mary Fisher and briefly settled in Munich, Germany. During this time, he produced paintings so rapidly it was believed he had slaves hidden in the cellars that painted for him. Vereshchagin painted The State Procession of the Prince of Wales into Jaipur (1876), which is considered to be the third largest painting in the world. In his domestic life, everything was subordinated to his schedule. By five in the morning the artist was already in his studio, where no one else was allowed. A tray with breakfast food was put in a half-opened doorway; if the plates clinked, he immediately broke into a temper. It was in this manner in Munich that he painted a series of thirteen paintings amongst some of his best Orientalist work, the Turkestan Series. He wanted to keep this series together so he set a very high price for each individual painting. One of the famous Russian Tretyakov brothers, Sergei Tretyakov (1834-92), bought Vereshchagin’s entire Turkestan Series in 1875 for approximately $2,000,000 USD in present-day currency. Today these paintings have been divided between the collections of the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow and the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg. All together the Tretyakov brothers bought 138 paintings and about 400 drawings from Vereshchagin.
After Munich, the couple moved to Paris in 1877, where Vereshchagin became a member of the Russian Artists’ Club, an organization founded by Russian artists, writers and public figures to promote mutual assistance and charitable works within the Russian community. The club organized concerts and dramatic readings; it was the place to learn cultural news and meet exciting people. Unfortunately, the prices for apartments in Paris became unmanageable, even for the newly-prosperous Vereshchagin. The couple decided to settle about a half-hour’s horse ride from Paris, in the city of Mezon-Laffit. They bought some land there and four years later, they moved into a home designed by Vereshchagin. He also designed a unique summer studio that was built on wheels with enormous windows that stood on rails to take advantage of the best light for painting. He was able to move his studio around easily to follow the sun, so that the rays of the sun always fell directly onto his canvas.
In 1877 a new Russo-Turkish War started. Though Vereshchagin was in Paris, he could not lose the opportunity to join the battle. On June 8th he was on board a small mine boat named Shutka as a volunteer, sustaining serious injuries when it was attacked by a Turkish battleship. Not waiting to recover, he made his way to southern Bulgaria to take part in the Siege of Plevna, one of the major battles of the war that was fought by the joint army of Russia and Romania against the Ottoman Empire. Under the shells and bullets of enemy’s fire Vereshchagin painted battle scenes as they happened. All together there were a series of four battles over a five-month period. During one of these assaults Vereshchagin’s younger brother, Sergey, was killed. The Siege of Plevna seriously delayed the Russian advance into Bulgaria, but in the end Russian reinforcements decisively defeated the Ottoman forces in the fourth battle at Shipka Pass. The Siege of Plevna also signaled the introduction of the repeating rifle into European warfare with magazine-fed weapons. At the end of the Russo-Turkish War Vereshchagin was awarded the Gold Sword for Bravery, but refused to accept it.
Despite his many hurdles Vereshchagin gained great popularity both in Russia and abroad by the late nineteenth century. His name was often seen in both the European and American press. In fact, the well-known American novelist, Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945), created the main character in his novel, The Genius, based on Vereshchagin’s character. As he matured as an artist Vereshchagin moved from detailed descriptions of bloody combat scenes to more symbolic imagery. In his painting, The Road of the War Prisoners (1878-79), the artist uses loose expressive brushstrokes to convey the emotional toll of the horrors during the Russo-Turkish War. Drawing upon first-hand experience, Vereshchagin witnessed thousands of Turkish prisoners freezing to death as they marched to war camps. This openly anti-war creation was rejected by Tsar Alexander II (1818-81), along with its companion piece, A Resting Place of Prisoners (1878-79). In 1891, Vereshchagin finally sold both canvases to collectors in New York; today they are on display at the Brooklyn Museum. In his painting, Requiem. Vanquished. (1879), a Russian priest gives last rights to a field of dead Muslim soldiers, symbolizing the power of victory over one’s immortal soul. When it was first exhibited in St. Petersburg, Russian generals became angry because it showed sympathy for the Turks and discredited the Russian army. Vereshchagin replied, “You see the naked truth.”4
In 1883, Vereshchagin traveled to Syria and Palestine, where he was captivated by the beauty of the Holy Land. What was originally planned to be a short trip to paint studies turned into a two-year adventure, inspiring his Palestine Series. Among his subjects were the Tomb of Abraham, the Ezdraelon Valley, the Tombs of the Kings, the remains of the ancient town of Bethsaida, and the old Jewish Tombs near Jerusalem. Completed at his Mezon-Laffit home from 1884 to 1885, this series depicts the life of Jesus and the Holy Family. Vereshchagin painted these religious figures in a commonplace manner stripped of their usual glorification. One of the more famous paintings in the series, Solomon’s Wall (1885), depicts a young Joseph wearing dirty clothes while walking amongst trash and hens, while a young Jesus is bored nearby. Arousing significant controversy, the series disappeared from public view shortly after its European debut; the paintings were completely banned in Russia. In Vienna, the Catholic clergy declared them as a heresy. In an interview with the local Viennese press there Vereshchagin said: “I am an atheist, it is not a surprise. Though I think that Christ is a historical character deified by Evangelical biographizes. He was smart and justice in some of his assessments. Cardinals, bishops… Have nothing common with his name, they parasitize on it, and in fact they are heretics themselves…”.5 The last time the paintings were exhibited was in the United States in November 1888, following an aggressive promotional campaign organized by the American Art Association. Vereshchagin’s exhibition opened at the American Fine Art Gallery in New York and traveled throughout the United States for two months. The show was a phenomenal success. The entire collection of 100 paintings was sold at auction. Solomon’s Wall was purchased by Phoebe Hurst (1842-1919), who donated it to the collection of the Berkeley Fine Art Museum in California. The painting was sold on April 18, 2007 to an anonymous Russian buyer for the sum of $3,624,000 USD. The whereabouts of the majority of other paintings from this series remain a mystery today; only a few have reappeared on the international art market following an auction in 1891. For these reasons, after nearly a century of oblivion, the emergence of Solomon’s Wall on the market is a highly significant event for researchers and admirers of Vereshchagin’s art.
Vereshchagin met his second wife, Lydia Vasilevna Andreevskaya, when he hired her to play piano for his 1888 exhibition in the United States. In 1893, the couple settled in Moscow, where Vereshchagin began work on a series of paintings inspired by the novel War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910). This series was devoted to Napoleon’s campaign and Russia’s courage in the War of 1812. In preparation he visited Borodino field, numerous museums, met with researchers of Napoleon’s life and read everything he could find on the subject. Vereshchagin even went on to write a book about the war. The artist worked on these paintings for the last fifteen years of his life. The series depicted the Battle of Borodino, to which Vereshchagin devoted two paintings: Napoleon Near Borodino Heights (1897) and The End of the Battle of Borodino (1899-1900). The stay of Napoleon’s army in Moscow is depicted in fourteen paintings, including In the Assumption Cathedral (1887-1895), In the Kremlin – A Fire (1887-1895) and In Defeated Moscow (1897-1898). These paintings were first exhibited in 1895 in Moscow and St. Petersburg. As usual Vereshchagin wanted to sell the series as a unit. But it wasn’t until 1902 that Vereshchagin’s representatives finally sold his Napoleonic series to Tsar Nicholas II (1868-1918) for approximately $2,000,000 USD in present-day currency. After years of being rejected by Imperial Russia, Vereshchagin had finally triumphed.
Vereshchagin continued to travel until the last day of his bold and courageous life. The artist took part in one of the battles of the Russo-Japanese war in 1904, which proved to be fatal. Vereshchagin was traveling in the Far East where he visited with American troops in the Philippines and Russian troops in Manchuria. He was invited by Admiral Stepan Makarov (1849-1904) to join him aboard Makarov’s flagship Petropavlovsk. Going out in the morning on a raid on April 13, 1904, they encountered Admiral Tog's Japanese navy. Makarov decided not to fight and instead turned in retreat; in doing so the Petropavlovsk struck two mines and blew up, killing most of the crew including Makarov and Vereshchagin. In two minutes the ship disappeared from sight. According to eye-witnesses, Vereshchagin spent the last minutes of his life coolly painting the scene in front of him, a council of war presided over by Admiral Makarov, which was recovered almost undamaged. In a wicked irony of fate, the graves of all Vereshchagin’s relatives also disappeared under water when the Rybinsk Reservoir flooding program was adopted in 1941.
Vereshchagin, one of the most distinguished Russian battle painters of all time, had the following to say about war, “Does war have two sides – one that is pleasant and attractive and the other that is ugly and repulsive? No, there is only one war, that attempts to force the enemy to kill, injure, or take as many people prisoner as possible, while the stronger adversary beats the weaker until the weaker pleads for mercy.”4 With considerable fortitude Vereshchagin won worldwide fame, he took part in more than thirty personal exhibitions in the last decade of his life, half of them were abroad. Vereshchagin used his art to speak for those who could no longer speak for themselves, to ask questions no one else felt permitted to ask.
Historians consider that the Great Game ended on September 10, 1895 with the signing of the Pamir Boundary Commission protocols, when the border between Afghanistan and the Russian empire was defined. More than a century after his death, no single artist, photographer or journalist has come anywhere close to documenting the wars and conflicts created by the Great Game in the way that Vasily Vereshchagin did. Yet, the sheer diversity of his work is what really sets Vereshchagin apart from most artists of any epoch. Perhaps one of his greatest honors canme in 1901 when Vereshchagin was nominated for the first Nobel Peace Prize.
1. Elizabeth Kridl Valkenier, The Wanderers Masters of 19th- Century Russian Painting, Dallas Museum of Art, 1990, page 2.
* Note: The spelling of his name: Evgenia Petrova, Faces of Russia: Portrait Gallery of the Russian Museum, Palace Editions, St. Petersburg, Russia, published in 2012, page 153.
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 is the editor of Musings-on-art.org.
Cathy Locke’s artwork – www.cathylocke.com