Vasily Vereshchagin - Biography

Vasily Vereshchagin, one of the most distinguished Russian battle painters of the 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.”

He is also known for his studies of Asian life, and canvases featuring British-Indian history. Because of his strong patriotic ideas, the depth and acuteness of his subjects, and his vivid imagery, the artist made a tangible contribution to the genre of historical painting in the late nineteenth century. His pictures were exhibited in the biggest cities of Russia and abroad. Most of his works are collected in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow and the State Russian Museum in St.Petersburg.

Dressing station near Plevna 

Vasily Vasilyevich Vereshchagin was born in the town of Cherepovets into the family of a Russian landowner of noble descent. When he was eight years old, he was sent to the Tsarskoe Selo near St. Petersburg to enter the Alexander Cadet corps. Three years later he entered the naval school in St Petersburg, making his first voyage in 1858. He served on the frigate “Kamchatka”, sailing to Denmark, France, and Egypt. Vereshchagin graduated from the Cadet School at the top of his class, but he could not overcome his passion for art and entered the Academy of Arts in 1860 to begin the study drawing in earnest. His father was outraged by his actions and cut off all material assistance to his son.

However, Vereshchagin worked and studied hard, winning a medal two years later in 1863 from the St. Petersburg Academy for his piece “Ulysses slaying the Suitors”.

However, dissatisfied with the conservatism and idealistic conventions of the academic system of teaching, he left the academy the same year. The “Revolt of 14 Artists” who were opposed to academic teaching and later formed the Itinerant movement took place at this time. The Critical Realism of the Itinerants always amazed Vereshchagin, and he later took part in some of their exhibitions. In 1864, after a trip to Paris, Vereshchagin came under the influence of Jean-Léon Gérôme, visiting his studio at the “Ecole des Beaux-Arts”. Gérôme’s compositional skill in his historical paintings and his effective handling of detail made a great impression on Vereshchagin.

Eaters of Opium

Though Vereshchagin did not become a naval officer, his career was linked with war, which in turn became the main topic of his paintings. “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,” Vereshchagin wrote. He took part in military actions in Turkestan and in the Balkans. In the Salon of 1866, he exhibited his drawing “Dukhobors chanting their Psalms”, and in the next year he accompanied General Kaufman's expedition to Turkestan. At that time Turkestan was a place of military confrontation. The painter decided to bear witness to the war and depict it true to life in his canvases. In 1868 he joined the Russians defending the Samarkand fortress. He received the cross of St. George for bravery and courage for his military service at the siege of Samarkand. In Vereshchagin's paintings, war appeared as a dramatic event. The artist painfully and bitterly regretted the enormous toll of human lives. In a series of battle-pieces, Vereshchagin developed his thoughts about the barbarity of orders on the battlefield, and about the heroism and courage of Russian soldiers and simple people. The exotic character of the sunny East and the people's colorful dress did not blind the great artist and humanist to their poverty and lack of civil rights. 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.

Vereshchagin's battle paintings soon enjoyed great popularity both in Russia and abroad, and helped determine the basic orientation of the artist's direction. From his earliest works, Vereshchagin spoke out in protest against aggressive wars. Having spent three years in Turkestan, Vereshchagin produced a number of war pictures and exhibited one of them, “The Apotheosis of War”, portraying a pyramid of skulls “dedicated to all conquerors: past, present and those yet to come”.

Vereshchagin’s war paintings made such a great impression that it gave rise to irritation and even fear in military circles in Russia and abroad. One day, in 1882, Vereshchagin’s exhibition in Berlin was visited by Field Marshal Helmuth Moltke, a German theorist who viewed war as something inevitable and conducive to technical and even moral progress. Vereshchagin brought 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 also imposed a taboo on visits to Vereshchagin’s exhibition. He declined the artist's offer to let Austrian officers see his pictures at the 1881 exhibition in Vienna free of charge. A ban on exhibitions of Vereshchagin’s work was also enforced in Russia, as well as a ban on reproductions of them in books and periodicals amidst accusations of slandering the Russian army. The artist took these unjust accusations badly and burned three of his paintings, “The Forgotten Soldier”, “They Have Encircled”, and “Pursue and They Entered”. For thirty years, the Tsarist government did not acquire a single picture by the already world-famous artist. Pavel Tretyakov bought most of his Turkestan works.

Nevertheless, by the late 19th century Vereshchagin had gained popularity not only in Russia, but also abroad. His name never left the pages of the European and American press. The well-known American novelist Theodore Dreiser was influenced by the personality of Vereshchagin when writing the main character of his novel “The Genius”, the artist Eugene.

Vereshchagin was an indefatigable traveler, going to Turkestan in 1869, the Himalayas, India and Tibet in 1873, and back to India in 1884. On these journeys he had to contend with all sorts of difficulties: he almost froze to death in the snowy heights of the Himalayas, and in the fatiguing tropical heat he fell ill with a fever. It was a productive period, however, and he painted more than 150 sketches depicting the grandeur of Indian white-stone architecture. The artist painted some amazing Orientalist paintings there, including “Taj Mahal Mausoleum in Agra”. Vereshchagin also decided to devote a series of pictures to the British takeover of India. His plan was to create a large pictorial poem about the historical fate of India, about its transformation from a powerful independent country into a British colony. His plan was only partly realized, however, with some of the best paintings in the cycle being “The Procession of the British” and “Native Authorities in Jeypore”.

Though a pacifist, he felt morally obligated to fight in the Russo-Turkish campaign of 1877, where he often found himself in the thick of the battle and was wounded several times. Vereshchagin adhered to the opinion that it was impossible to depict the reality of war pieces without taking part in the attacks, storms, and victories personally. He wanted to feel and go through it all himself. “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.” Vereshchagin was present at the crossing of the Shipka Pass and at the Siege of Pleven, where his brother was killed and he was dangerously wounded during the preparations for the crossing of the Danube River near Rustchuk. At the conclusion of the war he acted as secretary to General Mikhail Skobelev at San Stefano. These experiences gave him the firsthand knowledge he needed to create numerous gritty war paintings. Unlike most contemporary battle pieces depicting war as a kind of parade, Vereshchagin’s paintings revealed its viciousness, showing soldiers as the most important element in war and the chief victim of it.

After the war, the artist settled in Munich, where he produced his war pictures so rapidly that he was freely accused of employing assistants. The sensational subjects of his pictures and the representation of the horrors of war attracted the public in Paris in 1881, and subsequently in London, Berlin, Dresden, Vienna and other cities. His epic portrayal of “The State Procession of the Prince of Wales into Jaipur” in 1876 is regarded to be the third largest painting in the world. He aroused much controversy with his picture “Blowing from Guns in British India”, which depicted executions carried out by tying victims to the barrels of cannons. Vereshchagin's detractors argued that such executions had only occurred during the Indian rebellion of 1857, but the painting depicted modern soldiers of the 1880’s, implying that the practice was normal. Because of its photographic style, the painting appeared to present itself as an impartial record of a real event. Vereshchagin defended himself in an interview in 1877 by saying that this mode of execution was “the most humane in existence” and that if there were another rebellion, the British would use it again.

A journey to Syria and Palestine in 1884 amazed him, prompting him to paint an equally discussed set of portrayals from the New Testament. Vereshchagin's paintings caused controversy over portraying the figure of Christ with what was thought at the time to be an unseemly realism. His depiction of Jesus's features was thought of as excessively vulgar and overly Semitic in ethnicity.

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