Battles and wars have long been an important sub-genre of painting. From Paolo Uccello’s panels showing the serried ranks in the Battle of San Romano in 1432 to Picasso’s huge requiem to the bombing of Guernica in 1937, mass death and destruction has retained a major place in art. For much of that time, though, those paintings have been celebratory, made by artists who weren’t there, and were commissioned by the victor to glorify their military success.
You might assume that the war paintings of Vasily Vasilyevich Vereshchagin (1842–1904), a decorated war artist who served with the Imperial Russian Army from 1867, were propaganda. Far from it: they earned the distinction of being banned throughout Russia and much of Europe because of their honest depiction of the realities of war. It’s now only appropriate that his paintings are in official collections in Russia, Ukraine and New York, where you’d hope that they’d have contemporary relevance.
After training as a naval cadet, Vereshchagin entered the Imperial Academy of Arts in Saint Petersburg, where he excelled at history painting. From there he went to train in Paris under Jean-Léon Gérôme. In 1867 he was made an ensign and accompanied General von Kaufman’s military campaign in the newly acquired state of Russian Turkestan. During that, a small force left in the city of Samarkand was put under siege by Bukharan forces. Vereshchagin displayed heroism, for which he was decorated. He returned to travel in Russia and Europe, going back to Turkestan in 1869, before establishing his studio in Munich.
Vereshchagin then set about painting what became known as his Barbarian and Turkestan series. Among these is his powerful Apotheosis of War (1871), showing ravens or crows perching on a huge pile of human skulls in a barren landscape outside the ruins of a town.
They are Triumphant is from his Barbarians series, and was painted in 1872. This shows the Emir of Bukhara and the nobility of the city of Samarkand celebrating victory with the erection of high poles on which the heads of Russian soldiers are impaled. In reality, the main Russian forces had returned and regained control, in the face of substantial losses.
Mortally Wounded, painted in 1873, is from his Turkestan series, and shows a Russian soldier wounded in the chest running away in the vain hope of saving his life.
In 1873-74 his paintings were exhibited in Britain and Russia, where they immediately became controversial. The Apotheosis of War and another work were deemed particularly offensive in portraying the Imperial Russian Army in a poor light, and were banned from public exhibition.
Between 1874-76, Vereshchagin travelled in the Himalaya, then returned briefly to Paris. At the start of the Russo-Turkish War in 1877, he returned to his role as a war artist, serving again with the Imperial Russian Army. Later that year he was present at the Battles of Shipka Pass, and at the Siege of Plevna (Pleven), now in modern Bulgaria. His brother died in action in the latter, and Vereshchagin himself was seriously wounded when crossing the River Danube. He returned to his studio in Munich, where he painted a series of works showing scenes from those and other battles.
Resting Place of Prisoners from 1878-79 shows a long trail of prisoners of war, huddling in the spindrift of bleak open country.
The Road of the War Prisoners from the same time shows carrion crows picking at the corpses along the roadside, again in the winter snow.
Winners, a third painting from 1878-79 and now in the Kyiv National Picture Gallery, shows Ottoman victors of battle stripping the corpses of the enemy of clothing, and showing it off to one another.
After the Attack. Plevna, 1877-1878 (1881) is a brutally frank depiction of the human devastation at a field hospital, with the wounded, dying and dead littered outside tents.
After a visit to India in 1882-83, Vereshchagin painted several controversial works showing anachronistic scenes, in which contemporary British imperial soldiers were shown executing sepoys by firing artillery through their bodies, which had been known during the Indian Rebellion in 1857, but wasn’t a practice of the 1880s. During the 1880s, German and Austrian soldiers were banned from viewing his paintings, and they were forbidden from exhibition and reproduction in Imperial Russia.
Vereshchagin continued to paint what he had seen as the harsh realities of war, as practised at the time. He was present during the First Sino-Japanese War, and with Russian forces in the Boxer Rebellion.
There was a whole museum devoted to this artist in the Ukrainian city of Mykolaiv, including this chilling painting of the Interrogation of a Deserter (1901). You know only too well what’s going to happen in the end.
While Vereshchagin was covering the Russo-Japanese War in 1904, he was on board the Russian battleship Petropavlovsk when it struck mines and sank, with the loss of nearly seven hundred of its crew, including the artist. Only seventy were rescued.