A soldier by training and an artist by trade, Vasily Vereshchagin has accompanied the Russian army in many overseas expeditions and travelled all around the East, from India to Japan. His work is now recognised for its anti-violence message, but during his lifetime Vereshchagin was even considered a traitor to the country and the military. Here are the main works of a great artist and soldier who chose to show the real side of war.
Vereshchagin knew his life, similar to his three brothers, would be somewhat connected to the military. Yet his passion for art soon directed him to the Academy of Arts. After three years he took a few years off to travel, namely to the Caucasus and to France. He then returned to St Petersburg and completed his formal art education. He was then commissioned to work in Turkestan, where he lived in Samarkand, a city taken by Russian troops. He was hired by a Turkestan governor to work as a painter for him. The city would later also become a subject in his paintings, like in the one below.
Vereshchagin was caught amidst battle in Samarkand and along with other locals survived the siege in the city. He was awarded the Cross of St George for his bravery during the siege. It was the only award he accepted during his lifetime. He returned home, and then the governor commissioned him to prepare a number of paintings for an exhibition. The painting At the Door of a Mosque is one of many that captured the everyday life of local people. It portrays the juxtaposition of the rich decor of the mosque and the ragged beggars who are not allowed in.
Preparing to complete an exhibition, Vereshchagin travelled to Turkestan for the second time. He took a route through Siberia. On the way, he stopped off to visit an old acquaintance of his, Batik Kanaev, who was the leader of a Kyrgyz tribe. To thank him for his hospitality, Vereshchagin completed a painting of him, inside a yurt, dressed in traditional costume and holding a falcon. Friendship with Batik allowed Vereshchagin a safe journey through the Kyrgyz region into China and then back to Turkestan.
Work on the collection started after the artist’s return from the East. He began work in Munich and after two years produced a collection of 13 paintings and numerous sketches. Not all of the paintings were of everyday life, many are dedicated to battle, showing the artist’s disappointment with war. Mortally Wounded captures the last minutes of a man’s life as he is just about to fall to the ground. The painting does not portray the man as a hero. Rather it shows the human sacrifice and suffering that conquerors have to make.
The collected works were exhibited in London and later in St Petersburg and Moscow. Vereshchagin was willing to sell the whole collection under one condition: the buyer must purchase all of the paintings. Luckily, such a buyer was found, and he was a prominent art collector named Pavel Tretyakov. Many of the above works, including Uzbek Woman in Tashkent are exhibited at Moscow’s famous Tretyakov gallery.
Undoubtedly, The Apotheosis of War is Vereshchagin’s best-recognised painting. The idea came from the legend that armies from the East would leave pyramids of skulls as a trophy of their conquest. The work sends a strong anti-war message, transcending age and time. The frame of the painting contained a sarcastic message from the writer: “Dedicated to all great conquerors, past, present and future.” His irony was not welcomed by the government; they felt that this painting portrayed the Russian military in a bad light.
Despite the very unwelcoming response from the Imperial family, Vereshchagin was granted the title of professor at the Academy of Arts. The artist decided to refuse it. The negative feedback on the exhibition forced him to destroy several paintings. He soon embarked on further travels. For two years he lived in India as well as in Tibet. Later, he returned to Paris. The painting still remains loyal to his country and as soon as he hears of the start of the Russian-Turkish war in 1877, he decides to immediately join the armed forces.
Vereshchagin was seriously injured in battle and had to undergo surgery in the field. He returns to depicting battle scenes that he has witnessed. Defeated. Requiem shows a priest and a commander performing a remembrance service for a field of dead soldiers. These soldiers are men who fought in the Siege of Plevna, a battle that brought many casualties on Russia’s side. For Vereshchagin, it was also a personal matter as his brother was killed in that siege.
After his injury, Vereshchagin resumes his travels. He again returns to India producing new paintings. The work Suppression of the Indian Revolt by the English stirs lots of controversies. It depicts an execution method of tying victims to barrels of cannons. Although the method was officially halted decades earlier, the soldiers on the painting are wearing then-modern uniforms. The current whereabouts of the painting are unknown. Allegedly it has been bought by the British government and destroyed.
At the turn of the century, Vereshchagin was in the Far East. A year after his arrival in Japan, the Russo-Japanese War broke out. He was invited by Admiral Makarov to join him aboard the flagship Petropavlovsk. In 1904, the ship sank as it was coming into Port Arthur, taking down the whole crew, including Vereshchagin who was still on board.
Vereshchagin’s wartime works are now recognised not only in Russia but around the world.