Voyager Who Gave Witness to War : Notes on Vasily Vereshchagin
Oct. 26 is the birthday of a Russian artist who dared to show the grim toll of battles. He also traveled widely, visiting Central Asia, the Middle East, the United States, India and Japan.
“Painter, Solider, Traveler” is the English title of a book of autobiographical sketches from Vasily Vereshchagin (1842–1904).
I found electronic copies of this book on archive.org while trying to confirm this quote, which is widely attributed to Vereshchagin:
“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.”
That does sound like something Vereshchagin would have said, although I have not yet found the source for it. Below are excerpts of a description Vereshchagin wrote for an 1888 American Art Association exhibition of his work.
In the guide to the 1888 exhibition, Vereshchagin wrote of the painting above: “Dedicated to all the great conquerors, past, present and future. This picture is not the creation of the artist’s imagination — it is historically correct. Tamerlane and many other heroes raised such monuments on their battle-fields, leaving the bones to be cleansed and whitened by the sun and rain.”
There’s a link at the end of this essay to a bibliography with details on this American Art Association catalogue and other material used in my research on Vereshchagin.
Born to a well-off family, Vereshchagin went to a tsarist cadet corps at the age of eight. He then he entered the naval school at St Petersburg, making his first voyage around age 15. But he opted for a career in art over the military.
Around 1864 Vereshchagin went to Paris, where he studied under Jean-Léon Gérôme, one of the most famous painters of the time. Vereshchagin liked to travel and capture images of different cultures to sell to European audiences.
Below are perhaps Vereshchagin’s best known works in the United States, both owned by the Brooklyn Museum.
While traveling with Russian troops in 1877 a campaign against the Ottoman Empire, Vereshchagin witnessed Turkish prisoners freezing to death.
With its “openly antiwar” message, “The Road of the War Prisoners” was rejected for the czar’s collection, according to the Brooklyn Museum’s website. In 1891 Vereshchagin sold these paintings to collectors in New York who were still haunted by the horrors of the American Civil War, the website says.
In 1904, Vereshchagin accompanied Vice Admiral Stepan Makarov and his crew during Russia’s war with Japan. Makarov’s battleship Petropavlovsk was the flagship for the Russian navy. It sank after striking two mines.
By 1905, Russia had lost much of its naval fleet. Tsar Nicholas II had to accept a treaty that basically acknowledged Japan as the victor in the contest. The defeat in this war helped lead Russia into a revolution that would cost Nicholas and his family their lives.
Above is a depiction of the sinking of the Petropavlovsk by Yasuda Hampō (1889–1947). The image is a Wikimedia copy of an image in the public domain.