When Vasily Vereshchagin’s The Pearl Mosque in Agra arrived from New York, the entire Russian Department, from administrators and international specialists to business managers and cataloguers, raced down to our warehouse to watch it being uncrated. Held in the collection of Vassar College since 1916 and familiar to many of us for years only from small yellowed images in Soviet monographs, the painting was magnificent in the flesh.
The Pearl Mosque in Agra was painted in Paris in Vereshchagin’s custom-made studio, designed to allow him to work freely on monumental canvases. An obsessive realist, the artist had previously spent almost two years assembling ethnographic materials to lend his Indian series the authenticity he demanded, almost drowning in a river, freezing on a mountain ledge and being plagued with tropical malaria in the process.
We were not the only ones mesmerised by the canvas; on 2 June 2014 the painting went under the hammer, inspiring frantic international bidding and eventually selling for £3.7 million, establishing a new auction record for Russia’s finest Orientalist painter.