Vasilii Vereshchagin was the most accomplished of the Russian battle painters. He painstakingly documented many of Russia's military conflicts during the second half of the 19th Century and dedicated his life to exposing the inhumane nature of war and the absurdity of the loss of human life. In addition to accompanying the Russian troops during military campaigns, Vereshchagin was a historian, ethnographer, journalist, geographer and indefatigable traveler who traveled extensively in Central Asia, the Himalayas, India, Tibet, and Japan.
In 1867 Vereshchagin accompanied General Kauffmann's expedition in Turkistan (present day Uzbekistan and Tajikistan). At the siege of Samarkand he was awarded the cross of St. George for bravery on the battlefield. During his nineteen months in Turkistan, he produced several seminal works documenting the brutal experiences and atrocities committed by the armies on both sides.
Vereshchagin's greatest contributions to history may be the visual record he created of the remote regions in Central Asia. He was one of the very few Western artists who ventured into the remote lands of the open steppe and deserts along the ancient Silk Road, recording in his paintings the faces, clothing, and customs of the indigenous people at a time when ethnographic studies and systematic documentation of the native cultures was only beginning. The present lot is a small scale painting of two traveling dervishes engaged in a quiet meditation while resting near the stone city wall. Dervishes were members of Sufi Muslim ascetic religious fraternities. Known for their extreme poverty and austerity, Dervishes traveled in groups visiting religious sites. Here Vereshchagin demonstrates his remarkable skill of working in pure color and pattern in the brilliant patchwork of the men's garments. In its composition and color scheme the present painting is closely related to two paintings of the similar subjects: Dervishes in Festive Clothes. Tashkent, 1870 (fig. 1) and At the Door of a Mosque, 1873 (fig. 2).
The present lot is an extraordinary representation of Vereshchagin's diverse body of Orientalist work and a visual testament to Russia's vast geography and unique historical proximity to Asia and the Middle East.
During the 1880's while he was still a young man, Ambassador Crane developed an interest in the Muslim world and was drawn to Central Asia. In 1891 he arrived in Bukhara and instantly became fascinated with the exotic cultures and vitality of this diverse commercial center. Crane frequented caravanserai and small roadside inns where tired pilgrims or merchants could find rest after a long journey, where he enjoyed observing the colorful and multilingual crowd. Vereshchagin's unique vision of the vibrant and exotic world (fig. 3) must have corresponded with Crane's own memories of that far-away land because in February 1902 he purchased the present painting from the Art Institute of Chicago, which at the time had secured the rights to represent the artist to clients in America (See fig. 2 lot 20).