Artist Gallery: Vasily Vereshchagin

Vasily Vereshchagin was a Russian painter who specialized in war scenes. He came to the Hind (specifically to India) in late 1874 and again in 1882. He was one of the first Russian painters to achieve significant fame outside his home country. A number of Vereshchagin’s artworks were never shown in public during his lifetime because of the harsh realism of his style. He was often controversial in Britain, due to his depiction of that country’s sometimes brutal colonial rule in India.

Artistic Development:

Vereshchagin soon became unhappy with the traditional, inflexible methods advised by the Academy of Arts. Eventually, he became so frustrated that he deliberately destroyed one of his works in protest. By 1863, he had quit the Academy entirely, traveling to the Caucasus region to “learn from Nature.” This visit influenced his early work considerably, with many of the scenes he painted in the following years being pictures of landscapes in the region. Several years later, he watched workmen hauling barges and decided to depict their misery in art. The painting he planned, however, was never finished.

1867 saw a highly significant turning point in Vereshchagin’s development. He traveled to see the conflict in Turkestan, and not only observed the war but played an active role. As part of a garrison defending a fortress in Samarkand, he was awarded a medal for his bravery. Vereshchagin returned to Turkestan two years later, spending considerable time learning about its customs and traditions. He used this information to paint a series of works showing life in central Asia. Vereshchagin found the region colorful and full of life, but he was keenly aware of its poverty and social problems, painting several pictures of beggars and slave markets.

From this point on, he focused most of his effort into battle paintings. Increasingly, these showed war as the brutal business it really was, rather than the idealized, romantic version depicted by most of the earlier artists. He ranged widely within this subject, painting both contemporary and historical scenes. Vereshchagin painted everything from the execution of rebels in India to the crushing defeat of Napoleon’s army in Russia. He vividly portrayed the cold, hunger, and fear which the ordinary soldiers of these armies felt so keenly. He was deeply unhappy with their treatment at the hands of their feudal lords.

Vasily Vereshchagin in Hind:

In late 1874, he departed for an extensive tour of the Himalayas, India and Tibet, spending over two years in travel. He returned to Paris in late 1876. During this time, he painted several scenes of imperial rule in British India. His epic portrayal of The State Procession of the Prince of Wales into Jaipur in 1876 is claimed to be the third largest painting in the world. In 1882–1883, he again traveled to India. He aroused much controversy by his series of three pictures of a Roman execution (the Crucifixion); of sepoys blown from the guns in India; and of the execution of Nihilists in St Petersburg. His picture Suppression of the Indian Revolt by the English depicted executions carried out by tying victims to the barrels of guns. Vereshchagin’s detractors argued that such executions had only occurred in the Indian Rebellion of 1857, but the painting depicted modern soldiers of the 1880s, implying that the practice was normal. Because of its photographic style, the painting appeared to present itself as impartial record of a real event. In the Magazine of Art in December 1887, Vereshchagin defended himself, rather evasively, by saying that if there was another rebellion then the British would use it again.


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