The most important Russian Orientalist of the 19th century, Vasily Vereshchagin is a unique figure in the history of Russian art. The combination of his superlative talent, academic rigour, and humanitarian concern resulted in an unparalleled life’s work of paintings that captivate their audience, then as now, both aesthetically and intellectually. Unusually for a Russian artist of the period, Vereshchagin enjoyed tremendous success abroad: The Daily Telegraph branded him ‘a great artist’, the Deutsches Montagsblatt insisted that ‘When you happen upon [his] transfixing paintings, it unwillingly enters your head that here before us is the highest of what human creativity, human art, can achieve’ while Harper’s Weekly declared his work ‘one of those contemporary miracles; no other modern artist has created such a multitude of inspiring and elevating paintings’ (quoted in A. Lebedev, V. V. Vereshchagin, Zhizn’ i Tvorchestvo [Life and Work], Moscow, 1958, p. 6). His exhibitions in Paris, London, Berlin, Moscow, St Petersburg, New York and Vienna attracted thousands of visitors, consistently sparking debate, which may in part be attributed to Vereshchagin’s selection and exploration of universally relevant subject matter, such as the nature of man, power and civilisation.
In 1874 Vasily Vereshchagin forsook his native Russia for India, where he was to remain for almost two years gathering ethnographic materials with which to colour an intended series of paintings devoted to the region. The events immediately prior to the artist’s departure are worth examining in that they serve to demonstrate both the international reputation Vereshchagin’s work and personage rapidly acquired, while elucidating the nature of this fascinating man’s character. At the point of his exodus, Vereshchagin’s St Petersburg exhibition of paintings devoted to Turkestan (a region encompassing parts of present-day Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) was ongoing. The artist had volunteered to serve in the Russian army in 1867, participating in military campaigns against the Emir of Bukhara and had subsequently produced a collection of paintings devoted to the subject. Works from this series had been exhibited at London’s Crystal Palace in Vereshchagin’s first solo exhibition the previous year with tremendous and widespread success. To the amazement of the English public, the artist clearly stated in the accompanying catalogue that these works were not for sale; his intentions were humanitarian, the paintings designed to educate and provoke thought. This aim held true at his St Petersburg exhibition the following year: in order to ensure the works were viewed by as large and as broad an audience as possible, the Russian exhibition was free of charge for several days each week, the price of the catalogue a mere five kopecks. Again, the exhibition was much lauded, provoking Ivan Kramskoy, the ideological father of the Itinerants to declare: ‘All of these works are of a high artistic level. I do not know at this time of another artist equal to him either here at home or even abroad. It is something astonishing.’ (quoted in A. Lebedev, A. Solodovnikov, V. V. Vereshchagin, Moscow, 1988, p. 39). The author Vsevolod Garshin (1855-1888) was inspired to respond with verse while the eminent Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881) composed the ballad Forgotten based on the painting of the same name. While none of the paintings featured specific people, Vereshchagin’s even-handed depiction of the realities of conflict, loss, bloodshed and destruction, were a distinct departure from traditional representations of military historical events. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the series incurred the wrath of Tsar Alexander II and his generals: Mussorgsky’s ballad was suppressed, Vereshchagin accused of lacking patriotism and the sale of reproductions of his paintings forbidden. Disheartened, Vereshchagin determined to leave for India but not before burning three of his most controversial works: Surrounded – they are pursuing…, At the fortress wall. They have entered and the aforementioned Forgotten. In a heartening rectification, Pavel Tretyakov’ s (1832-1898) acquisition of a number of Vereshchagin’s Turkestan works and studies in the 1880s for 92,000 roubles represents the largest and most expensive purchase the collector ever made for what is now Moscow’s world class
While the impetus for Vereshchagin’s journey to India was far from fortuitous, the works inspired by his time there are so extraordinarily beautiful and accomplished, it is difficult to lament the journey’s unhappy motivation. He travelled extensively, his reverence for this rich land foreshadowing that of another Russian artist and Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947). Encounters with wild animals, almost drowning in a river, freezing on a mountain ledge and being plagued with tropical malaria did little to dampen his enthusiasm; his fervent interest in every aspect of local life roused the suspicions of the English colonial authorities who quickly, and somewhat ironically, became convinced he was spying for the homeland he had been obliged to quit. During his time in India Vereshchagin was deeply moved by what he perceived to be the plight of a great and ancient people at the hands of the British colonialists and determined to address the matter. He left India for Paris in March 1876 and soon wrote to his friend, the preeminent critic Vladimir Stasov (1824-1906) requesting the 100 or so mainly oil sketches he had produced in India and sent to St Petersburg for safe-keeping. Stasov send them willingly, writing to Vereshchagin, ‘Yesterday morning, I looked over all of the studies again, one after another, to say goodbye; I could have kissed each of them, such is the talent, truth and mastery within.’ (quoted in A. Lebedev, V. V. Vereshchagin, Zhizn’ i Tvorchestvo [Life and Work], Moscow, 1958, p. 165). On 14 April Vereshchagin wrote again to inform Stasov of his intention to ‘…capture my impressions [of India] in two series of painting, or two poems, let’s say: one short one (which as such I will call the little poem) and the other a long one, in 20 or 30 colossal paintings.’ (Ibid., p. 169). Another letter followed soon after: ‘Now it is time for the commencement of a large work – Snow on the Himalayas, the first painting of the first poem (the little one). Each painting relates to a stanza (I wrote these verses on horseback leaving the Himalayas…). Then, as I have already written to you, I also have on my hands (ready in my mind) a historical poem in the form of a number of colossal paintings (I don’t know if my health will allow me to complete it). The majority of these paintings are already in my mind, like living things.’ (Ibid.) Vereshchagin’s magnificent The Pearl Mosque in Agra was painted in his customised Parisian studio. Visually stunning, a soft light illuminating the architectural details of the structure, there is an undeniable poignancy to the scene: the descendants of the once mighty Mughal rulers exercising one of their sole remaining privileges, that of prayer, following the disbandment of their army by the British in 1805 and the exile of the last Mughal emperor in 1857. Vereshchagin’s decision to limit his palette serves to highlight and emphasise the human figures, heads bowed in quiet dignity. On surveying Vereshchagin’s work, the literary and art critic Vladimir Chuko (1839-1899) was both impressed and astounded by his ability to create such monumental and impressive paintings using so much of a single shade: ‘It is well known how difficult it is to work successfully with singular white tones in painting so that the harmony of the rays of light remains and the subjects appear boldly against this monochromatic white background. Of all the Russian artists only V. V. Vereschagin overcomes this difficulty. Recall a number of his paintings of the Eastern war or his Mosque in Delhi: there is so much light, so much truth and even so many effects of light in them, that one is involuntarily astonished at the artist’s ability to achieve such utter harmony with these methods.’ (Ibid., p. 172.) Where Soviet scholarship has sought to undermine Vereshchagin’s religious convictions and Vereshchagin’s son reveals in his memoirs that the family didn’t go to church or observe the fast, it is not possible to deprive the artist of any religious feeling. Furthermore, regardless of his inner convictions, Vereshchagin was clearly and understandably drawn to these magnificent buildings, writing in 1891: ‘I like the Moslem mosques: the prayer is simple and not less solemn than that of the Christians; but the deity is not represented there isn’t any painted or sculptured form. You may feel that God is present at your prayer, but where is He? – it is left to your soul to discover it.’ (quoted in the exhibition catalogue, Exhibition of the Works of Vassili Verestchagin, New York, 1891, p. 66).
Vereshchagin was a fervent, almost fanatic, realist: before painting a number of works focussing on the life of Christ he made a serious study of the Gospels, while his second excursion to India was intended to allow the artist to gather yet more materials and make additional sketches of local types in preparation for future paintings. Even his unconcealed criticisms of the atrocities of war drew on his own experiences in battle (he was decorated with the Order of St George (4th class), for his role in the defence of Samarkand) rather than abstract philosophy. He took pride in his attention to detail: ‘Can anyone say that I am careless about the types, about the costumes, about the landscape of the scenes represented by me? That I don’t actually study out beforehand the personages, the surrounding figuring in my works? Hardly so. Can anyone say that, with me, any scene taking place in reality in the broad sunlight had been painted by studio light - that a scene, taking place under the frosty skies of the North, is reproduced in the warm inclosure [sic] of four walls. Hardly so.’ (V. V. Vereshchagin, Second Appendix to the Catalogue of the Verestchagin Exhibition: Realism, New York, 1888, p. 5). Rather charmingly, this realism was extended to his working conditions: ‘When I was working on the Indian scenes in Paris, I chose the very hottest days so as not to destroy the impression and illusion of the Indian heat.’ (writing in 1898 to the journalist and art historian Fedor Bulgakov (1852-1908)). By happy extension, if we are forced to accept the atrocities and cruelty Vereshchagin depicted as verbatim, the beauty of his less visceral canvasses, the heavenly colours and glorious light, are lent an irrefutable truth.
Vereshchagin had not left Russia willingly and continued to visit regularly but was unwilling to accept the inevitable censure of subject matter should he return for good. His rejection of the title of Professor from the St Petersburg Imperial Academy of Arts in 1874, shortly after his controversial exhibition, also did little to endear him to the establishment. While the rise of the merchant class in the 19th century undermined the Imperial and aristocratic monopoly on art patronage, it did not destroy it, with the assassination of Alexander II in 1881 motivating fresh waves of repression in response to any action interpretable as criticism of the authorities. Nevertheless in 1890-1891 Vereshchagin’s desire to return began to take shape: he built a house with a studio on the edge of Moscow. In the preceding and subsequent years (1887-1894) Vereshchagin travelled extensively in Russia, visiting Yaroslavl, Rostov, Kostroma and Makarev between 1887-1888. The Portico of a 17th Century Church in Yaroslavl is a particularly fine example of the works Vereshchagin painted at this time, the evocative shadowy interior so familiar it is almost accompanied by the associated scents and sounds. Vereshchagin’s masterly grasp of perspective underlines this sense of intimacy, the sharp focus of the rather elegant figure in the foreground, painterly patches of light picked out on her umbrella, softens as our gaze rescinds to focus on the solemn blond boy facing the window.
Born in Cherepovets, the son of a relatively prosperous landowner, Vereshchagin never showed the least inclination to curry the favour of the rich and famous and was far more interested in drawing and painting ordinary people. In 1895 he published an illustrated biography of ordinary Russian people, which reproduced images of real people accompanied by stories of their experiences and difficulties. As the New York Times suggested on 10 December 1888: Vereshchagin ‘preaches with his brush the doctrines Tolstoy propagated with his pen’. While he never formally joined the Itinerants, a group of artists committed to portraying contemporary society realistically, this late project is a strong indication of the extent to which Vereshchagin’s sympathies lay with theirs, indeed one of the group’s most enduring images, Repin’s famous Barge Haulers on the Volga (1870-1873, Russian Museum, St Petersburg) took for subject matter a societal phenomenon already addressed by Vereshchagin: in the artist’s own words: ‘Each of my paintings must say something, I paint them solely for this purpose.’ Vereshchagin’s convictions and artistic intentions ensure a tangible connection between all of his paintings be it the sunlit Pearl Mosque in Agra or the atmospheric portico of a Yaroslavl church.
Both The Pearl Mosque in Agra and The Portico of a 17th Century Church in Yaroslavl were exhibited at the American Art Galleries in New York in November 1888. On view in New York for two months, Vereshchagin’s American show was an incredible success. Five thousand invitations were sent out for the opening. The galleries were decorated in exotic fabrics, Oriental rugs, and artefacts collected by the artist during his travels. A classically trained Russian piano player entertained visitors and tea was served from a gigantic samovar while two bearded men dressed in traditional costumes greeted visitors near the entrance. From New York the exhibition travelled to Chicago, St Louis, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Boston attended by thousands of visitors and accompanied by much press coverage. When the tour ended in 1891, the works returned to New York City, where on the evening of 17 November the entire collection of 110 paintings was auctioned off for $84,300. Arresting in both subject matter and execution, there is no doubt that The Pearl Mosque in Agra and The Portico of a 17th Century Church in Yaroslavl are two of the most beautiful paintings by the Russian master ever to appear at auction.