"I have to participate in the attacks of storms, victories and defeats" - the Russian Painter Vasily Vasilyevich Vereshchagin

26 October 1842, the Russian painter Vasily Vasilyevich Vereshchagin was born in Cherepovets.

"It would be impossible to achieve the aim I have set myself, to give society a picture of war as it really is.  I have to feel and go through it all myself.  I have to participate in the attacks of storms, victories and defeats, experience the cold, disease and wounds.  I must not be afraid to sacrifice my flesh and my blood, otherwise my pictures will mean nothing“ (Vasily Vereshchagin)


Vasily Vereshchagin: "The Apotheosis of War”, dedicated, in his own words, “to all conquerors, past, present and to come“ (1871).


War painters are a strange breed. The need to capture the essence of human conflict and transform it into art goes at least back to antiquity. But the 19th century and the upcoming idea of propaganda saw for the first time the governmental commissioning of artists to glorify the deeds of the respective national military – often conscripted men and enthusiastic volunteers in contrast to professional and career soldiers and mercenaries that made up armies during the early modern age – to bolster morale and give troops and hinterland a proper nationalistic underlining. Painters and, since the Crimean War, photographers began to accompany the armies to give a pictorial record of war, for official purposes and for the developing mass media. Some artists took the bait without an official appointment and were inspired by the selfsame sujet without any appointment and painted battle scenes and symbolic arrangements of the historical and contemporary conflicts that shaped the fate of men and women during the 19th and 20th century. The despicable sort exalted in glorifying war by ignoring any form of horrible realities that borders on the pathological, most just did their job and tried to give a more or less realistic account of events, trying to let their side sit pretty, some set themselves to express the horrors of war with artistic means and a few marched to a different tune altogether. Vereshchagin was one of them.



Vasily Vereshchagin: "Triumphant" (1872)


Like many other Russian artists of renown, Vereshchagin received a formal education at the St Petersburg Academy – he, though, chose to follow his calling after he started out as a cadet in the Imperial Russian Navy and already had seen a bit of the world while serving aboard the frigate “Kamchatka”. Traveling and capturing impressions in sketches and paintings would remain a guiding principle of Vereshchagin, but before he began his career as an alleged war artist in earnest, he went to France and perfected the poignancy of his arrangements, the surety and delicacy of his lines and the full, radiant colours of the atmosphere that became characteristics of his paintings. He aligned themselves with the Peredvizhniki, the Wanderers, who painted a singular realistic and nonetheless picturesque image of contemporary Russia and shared their approach of depicting misery as well as beauty where classically aligned artists would not see or even expect it. His almost photographic style and apparently impartial take of a scene gives a vivid and often didactic account of what he perceived. The painter of war soon became a pacifist.



Vasily Vereshchagin; "Man-Eater" (1880)



Vereshchagin saw war and all its horrors while he served in the Russian Army during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78 in Bulgaria where his brother fell and he was seriously wounded. And when he accompanied General Kaufman’s expedition as a civilian into Turkestan during the Russian conquest of Central Asia, he brought back disturbing images that have very few rivals in realism and ghastly atmosphere. Together with scenes from the Great Mutiny in India against the British Raj that gave his works a probably unwanted political component during the Great Game the British and Russian empires played for dominance in Asia and unsettling historical images describing the Great Patriotic War against Napoleon, Vereshchagin’s works received a lot of international attention and acclaim and were as often banned from exhibitions as well. He continued to travel for all his life and found death aboard the Admiral Makarov’s flagship “Petropavlovsk” when she struck a mine off Port Arthur and sank during the Russo-Japanese War in 1904. His last, almost finished painting he worked on aboard the “Petropavlovsk” could be salvaged almost unharmed.



An excellent monographic show of his paintings can be found on wikipaintings:

http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/vasily-vereshchagin/about-the-war-1873#supersized-artistPaintings-237719

and more about Vereshchagin on:


http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vasili_Vasilyevich_Vereshchagin