Vasily Vasilyevich Vereshchagin (October 26, 1842 (Cherepovets) - April 13, 1904 (Port Arthur)) was one of the most famous Russian battle painter and one of the first Russian artists to be widely recognised abroad. Besides being a battle painter, Vereshchagin was a traveler and military man.
Features of the artist Vasily Vereshchagin: he considered the paintings “without an idea” to be meaningless; he got through three wars during his service, but he was a pacifist artist in painting — he depicted the inhumanity of war on his canvases. He also painted a lot of exotic landscapes and genre works during his numerous travels.
The Cherepovetsky district of Novgorod province, where the artist Vasily Vereshchagin was born, has long been famous for its “iron craft”. In those places, rich in iron ore, people forged nails, which were then exported to England - Cherepovets steel was highly valued in Europe. One of the earliest memories of the artist was the “knock of hammers on the anvil in a long line of forges on a mountain cliff”, where the Vereshchagins' estate was located. That was not a random memory: it seemed like Vasily himself was forged in one of those places. He undoubtedly was a man of a strong character, had a lot of nerve and a sharp mind. That indomitable man was constantly overcoming things throughout his whole life. Suffering from seasickness, he served in midshipmen. Sincerely loathing violence, he took part in almost all the military campaigns. Being a selfless patriot of his country, he painted canvases for which he was declared a provocateur and an enemy of the state.
How the steel was tempered
Vasily Vereshchagin was born in Cherepovets in 1842. When he was three, the family settled in the family nest - the village in Petrovka, which Vereshchagin Sr. owned along with two other villages in the Novgorod and Vologda provinces. The leader of the local nobility, he lived on the income from the forges of his serfs, and also rafted down the forest with which these places were extremely rich. It was a measured, well-fed and boring life. Remembering his father, Vasily Vereshchagin noted that he was a homebody and had a “typically bourgeois mind”. He inherited a temper from a Tatar mother – an educated, clever woman, unusually beautiful and somewhat hysterical.
Vasily got interested in drawing pretty early in life, but his parents did not want to encourage that desire: “To the son of a nobleman, the 6th genealogical book, to become an artist — what a shame!” Among the Vologda and Novgorod nobility, the military career was considered to be not only prestigious, but also mandatory. Identifying sons in the navy was a long tradition there. Prosperous landowners coaxed the selection committee of the Marine Corps in advance. It seemed as if Vasily Vereshchagin’s fate was predetermined before his birth.
He got in to the Alexander Junior Cadet Corps in Tsarskoye Selo in 1850, and three years later he was enrolled in the St. Petersburg Naval Cadet Corps. As a teenager Vasily Vereshchagin was never at a loss for words and always stood his ground. However, the hazing and cynicism that prevailed in the Cadet “barracks partnership” quickly disappointed him. And after the first foreign campaign on the frigate “Kamchatka” (the young man turned 15 by that time), he highly doubted that he had been created for the fleet: Vereshchagin showed a severe seasickness. Nevertheless, he was ambitious, did not tolerate criticism, and therefore did his best to be the first in everything. Of course, Vasily was making huge steps in drawing, which he was more and more keen on.
The riot of fifteen
In the senior classes of the Marine Corps, drawing was no longer taught, and one of the former teachers advised Vasily to enroll in the drawing school of The Imperial Society for the Encouragement of Arts in St. Petersburg. The teachers immediately noticed the talent of free-lance Vereshchagin. One day, after praising the next work, the school director asked: “You won’t be an artist anyway, will you?” And he received an unexpected answer: “On the contrary, I don’t want anything as much as to become an artist.”
Cautious attempts to convince the father that being an artist was also a worthy occupation for a man were taken hostile. Even Vasily’s mother considered such a choice a career suicide. “The profession of a painter will not lead you to the best houses of the capital,” she believed, quite reasonably. “But in epaulets you will be accepted everywhere.” However, Vereshchagin had already made a decision. Having passed the final exams in the Marine Corps with the best marks in his graduation, he applied to the Academy of Arts.
Unfortunately, Vasily Vereshchagin got in to the Imperial Academy in not the best of times. After a quarter of a century, Alexander III had begun to reform the local education system expelling retrograde teachers and inviting people from the peredvizhniki movement. In the meantime, the Academy was infinitely far from the ideals of creative freedom, to which Vereshchagin was striving for. There, as in the army, everything was done according to the regulations. Mentors with Feldwebel persistence forced students to redraw ancient subjects for the thousandth time, brought them to watch the Old Masters and required blind adoration for the ancient authorities.
Getting more and more doubtful of the need to study at the Academy, Vereshchagin got himself something like a “sabbatical” and left for the Caucasus in search of fresh impressions and living nature. Shortly after, “Riot of Fourteen” struck - fourteen of the best students of the Academy (headed by Ivan Kramskoy) left its structure. If Vereshchagin had lingered in St. Petersburg a little longer, that event probably would have gone down in history as the “Riot of Fifteen”.
There’s a chance we won’t be killed!
The artist Vasily Vereshchagin spent about a year in the Caucasus during which he painted, collected ethnographic material and even taught. In letters to his home, Vereshchagin reported that “Tiflis is a godsend for a painter.” However, when an unexpected inheritance fell on him (that is 1000 rubles), bequeathed by his uncle, he decided that it was time to visit Europe. Vasily Vereshchagin went to Paris, where he expected to learn from Jean-Leon Gerome, whose paintings he admired in Petersburg. By that time, Jerome had already been a recognized authority among his colleagues, a gentleman of the Legion of Honor, and he was also a “fashionable painter.” It was very prestigious to be taught by him. However, in the studio of Master Vereshchagin, another disappointment awaited: all the same ancient subjects, all the same devotion to traditions as in the Academy of Arts.
Jerome’s attacks on the Impressionists in general (and in particular the campaign of persecution of Edouard Manet, in which Jerome was actively involved) finally convinced Vereshchagin that he could not learn anything new and progressive there. Soon he returned to Tiflis, recalling: “I escaped from Paris, as if it were a prison. And I began to paint freely with some kind of frenzy.”
At that time, the commander of the Turkestan Military District, General Kaufman, was looking for an artist who would accompany him on trips around Central Asia. Vereshchagin seized the opportunity. In addition to the thirst for new experiences and passion for travel, he was driven by another motive - “to find out what a true war is, about which I read and heard a lot, and near which I was in the Caucasus”. The fate “smiled” at him: the emir of Bukhara, who was in Samarkand, declared “holy war” to the Russians.
The battle for Samarkand was short. The emir’s troops, which had suffered serious damage, withdrew, giving Russian soldiers the opportunity to freely enter the city. Most of the Russian troops soon left Samarkand, and Vereshchagin remained in the fortress with a garrison of 500 people. Soon the local population, instigated by the mullahs, attacked. When the emir pulled up the remnants of his troops to the defenseless (as it seemed to him) fortress, they numbered tens of thousands.
The assault lasted almost a week. Exhausted, lost in spirit, the soldiers were ready to retreat under the onslaught of an incalculable enemy. However, when the fortress wall was breached, Ensign Vasily Vasilyevich Vereshchagin not only managed to repel the attack, but also to encourage his fellow soldiers to get into the counter offensive. He later described his thoughts as follows: “My first thought was - they don’t go, we have to go first; the second one – that is a good situation to show how to go forward; the third one - yes, we will probably be killed; the fourth one – maybe, just maybe, we won’t be killed!” Vereshchagin shot, pricked, chopped, threw himself into hand-to-hand fighting, took out the weapon from the twisted fingers of his fallen comrades, and shot again. According to the artist’s memoirs, that day he got off “cheaply”: “One bullet hit the cap off the head, the other one hit the barrel of the gun, just at the height of the chest.” Soon the reinforcement arrived. For the heroism shown during the defense of the Samarkand fortress, Vasily Vereshchagin was awarded the Cross of St. George. But the main thing was that one week of the Samarkand siege played a final role in shaping his views and determined his whole future life. Until the last breath, one of the most important battle artists in the history of painting, in a paradoxical way, hated the war and everything connected with it.
Like Hemingway, Vereshchagin believed that it was worth painting only what you know from personal experience. He physically could not sit still and simply could not stand aside. In 1877, when the Russian-Turkish war began, he went to the front - at his own expense, without the official financial support; there he was seriously injured and almost lost his leg. Turkestan, Balkans, Palestine, USA, Philippines, Cuba, Japan - the artist had been everywhere. And he found suitable subjects for his paintings - blood was flowing everywhere. Vereshchagin was devoted to the theme of war, but contrary to the centuries-old tradition, he painted it without ceremonial voluptuousness, sparkling epaulettes and bravura marches. Dirt, fear, death, mountains of skulls - unlike many court battle painters, he knew the real price of glorious victories.
The artist Vasily Vereshchagin had an intention to get into the very essence of things: he had been carrying out the subjects for his paintings for a long time, and returned to the places where he had gained his first impressions again and again. It was important for him to show that every coin had two sides, that courage and generosity during war often went hand in hand with panic and betrayal, that conquests were impossible without sacrifice and loss. He painted in cycles and terribly worried if he had to sell some painting separately. All of his work (in addition to painting, Vereshchagin published travel notes, prose) was an integral anti-war utterance, the right to which he suffered in full measure. One day, the artist, in warm blood, swore: “I will not paint more battle paintings - that's that! I take what I paint too close to my heart, I cry out (literally) the grief of every wounded and killed person.” Surely, he did not keep his word.
Almost from the first exhibitions of paintings by Vereshchagin, few doubted that Vasily was a brilliant artist. But his trustworthiness raised questions. Compatriots (especially those in epaulets) were bothered by the fact that Vereshchagin prefered “decadent” subjects instead of painting the glory of Russian weapons. There were rumors that having familiarized with the Turkestan series (1, 2, 3) in 1874, the future emperor, Grand Duke Alexander Alexandrovich, said: “His everlasting tendencies are opposed to national pride, and one thing can be concluded from them: either Vereshchagin is a brute or a completely insane person.”
Similar remarks with some variations accompanied the later Balkan cycle (1, 2, 3).
In 1890 Vasily Vereshchagin was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize - the first in history. His “everlasting tendencies” were estimated by the world according to the merits. The artist at that time was already in considerable resentment toward his homeland. And he said that offering his paintings to someone in Russia was the same as to stand on the porch at that time.
Setting on fire
The artist Vasily Vereshchagin burned his paintings at least three times. He was impulsive, quick-tempered, extremely touchy and completely intolerant of criticism. In his letters to Vladimir Stasov, Vereshchagin called himself a “Leyden jar”, knowing the property of accumulating “electricity” and sparking discharges. By the beginning of the 20th century, it was not easy to find an organization on the planet, a confession or an individual with whom Vereshchagin would not have quarreled. He didn’t get along with colleagues. In 1874 the artist refused the title of professor of the Academy of Arts. Later, he rejected the proposal to participate in the exhibitions of the Peredvizhniki movement, explaining that in his paintings there was no falsehood and he didn’t need such a company. In a letter to the same Stasov, Vereshchagin stated that in general “he did not want to know anyone from Russian artists”, doing sort of an exception only for Ivan Kramskoy, about whom he wrote that “this ingenious deacon is perhaps better than others, but he envies like a demon too”. His “military” canvases offended the patriots, a cycle of the biblical paintings, which he produced after a trip to Palestine, insulted the Vatican cardinals and diligent Catholics. His long-term relationship with his first wife Elizabeth, which lasted for 19 years, ended in a split in 1890. The artist called his father (again, in a letter to Stasov) “an unholy, unworthy, crazy old man.” By the way, Vereshchagin also repeatedly quarreled with Stasov himself.
There were times when the “Leyden Jar” struck at people who showed Vereshchagin the most friendly and sympathetic attitude. Besides Stasov, among those people was also Pavel Tretyakov, about the quarrel with whom Vereshchagin subsequently was very sorry. In 1903, five years after Tretyakov’s death, Vasily Vasilyevich lamented: “How foolish of me was to treat so brutally such a wonderful person. I am still ashamed and executed.”
The prince and the peasant
However, the artist’s difficult nature didn’t prevent the world from awe of the power of his talent. If the artist was reproached with a lack of patriotism or excessive theatricality (supposedly inherited from the master of Jérôme), then it was solely for political reasons.
Already in 1880, 200 000 people visited his exhibition in St. Petersburg. And in 1881 the artist Vasily Vereshchagin broke the jackpot in Vienna. The exhibition, which had been held for 28 days in the building of the Society of Artists Künstlerhaus, was accompanied by an unprecedented stir. “The exhibition of paintings by V.V. Vereshchagin is a spectacle unprecedented in Vienna so far,” the newspapers wrote. “From 9 o'clock in the morning and until 10 o'clock in the evening, the sheer mass of people not only fills the whole Kiinstlerhaus building, full of paintings, but also you can see several hundred people waiting for the entrance to the exhibition in the street. And if you manage to finally get into the hall of the Vereshchagin galleries, you will see, not without surprise, representatives of aristocratic families next to the workers, members of the highest bureaucracy, important, decent generals interspersed with the minor burgher and the rank-and-file line soldier. In Vienna, this phenomenon is unprecedented, because there aren’t any European big cities where the classes of society are not isolated as they are here. But Vereshchagin’s exhibition made a leveling effect, as it were: the prince, the peasant, the millionaire banker, and the simple worker — all rushing to each other in a hurry to bring 30 kreutzers to the cashier’s desk in order to get a quick look at the works of powerful talent”, they continued.
In subsequent years, people’ interest in Vereshchagin continued unabated - Berlin, Amsterdam, and London followed Vienna.
After total European success, Vasily Vereshchagin traveled twice to the United States and Cuba, where he worked on several paintings referring to the theme of the American-Spanish war. In the States, he was warmly welcomed by President Theodore Roosevelt, and the exhibition, hosted by the Chicago Institute of Art, was a huge success.
In 1903 Vereshchagin, despite the “bad feeling”, took a trip to Japan. The instinct did not let the old soldier down - a year later the Russian-Japanese war began. Of course, Vereshchagin again failed to stand aside, at the end of February 1904 he went to the front.
On March 31st (April 13th) battleship “Petropavlovsk”, on board of which was the artist Vasily Vereshchagin, hit a mine. Of the entire crew of 650, no more than sixty managed to escape. According to the testimony of the survivors, a few minutes before the explosion, Vasily Vasilyevich went up to the deck with a hiking album - he died holding his main weapon in his hands.
“Vereshchagin is mourned by the whole world,” was written in the “Vedomosti” newspaper. The most convincing evidence of the correctness of these words, perhaps, was an obituary, published in the “Newspaper of Ordinary People”. “Vereshchagin wanted to show people the tragedy and stupidity of the war, and he fell victim to it,” they wrote in 1904 in this Japanese newspaper.