Combat Gallery Sunday: The martial art of Vasili Verestchagin

The artist, soldier, sailor, writer and traveler himself.

The artist, soldier, sailor, writer and traveler himself.

Born during 1842 in the shadow of the medieval Cherepovets monastery in the historic Volga-Baltic waterway crossroads in Old Russia, Vasili Verestchagin (also transliterated as Vereshchagin) was the son of a nobleman. As such, when he was just a boy he was shipped off to the Junkers academies, as befitting his rank in society. During the Crimean War, he chose the life of a naval officer and served as a midshipman on the efficient new (built in New York) steam frigate Kamchatka as a teenager. Graduating first in his class in 1861, he left the naval service behind.

You see in the 19th century, every officer school instructed formal military drawing so that later in their service officers could reproduce realistic portrayals of what they had seen on scouting missions, or what an enemy soldier’s uniform had looked like, or how a weapon system, naval vessel or fortification was laid out. This awoke something in Verestchagin that he could not still and, leaving the navy behind, he took to drawing, sketching and painting with a stark realistic style that was to serve him well over the next 40 years.

"Eaters of Opium," by Vasili Verestchagin.The artist was one of the best-traveled gentlemen of his day, having moved about Europe, Asia and Africa extensively.

“Eaters of Opium,” by Vasili Verestchagin.The artist was one of the best-traveled gentlemen of his day, having moved about Europe, Asia and Africa extensively.

"The Spy" by Vasili Verestchagin. A common theme in his paintings.

“The Spy” by Vasili Verestchagin. A common theme in his paintings.

Between stints studying and painting abroad, Verestchagin managed to get attached to a variety of Russian military adventures as a war artist and followed General Kaufman’s 1866-68 expedition against the Khanate of Kokand and the Emirate of Bukhara, capturing Samarkand and gradually subjugating all of what is now Turkestan. It was a modern mid-19th century European army against the forces of a medieval power– with a predetermined outcome.

From this experience, VV produced a number of images.

"Mortally Wounded," Turkestan series, painted in 1873

“Mortally Wounded,” Turkestan series, painted in 1873

"After Failure," Turkestan series, painted in 1868. Note the calm demeanor on the Russian trooper's face as he lights his pipe.

“After Failure,” Turkestan series, painted in 1868. Note the calm demeanor on the Russian trooper’s face as he lights his pipe.

"They Attack Unawares, " Turkestan series by Vasili Verestchagin

“They Attack Unawares, ” Turkestan series by Vasili Verestchagin

He later accompanied the Russian army into Turkish areas in 1877-78. Taking up a rifle when needed, he also did a fair bit of fighting when the bullets started flying, being one of the only war artists ever decorated for bravery when he should have been sketching. In fact, putting his naval training to good use, the civilian painter, garbed in his traveling clothes, took command of a small torpedo launch in the Danube and engaged Turkish gunboats, earning some hot lead in his body and a St George Cross from the Tsar, Russia’s highest military award– only given to soldiers and sailors.

"Snowy Trenches, Russian positions along the Shipka Pass 1877." Painted in 1881 by Vasili Verestchagin. It should be noted that the artist's brother was killed during this campaign.

“Snowy Trenches, Russian positions along the Shipka Pass 1877.” Painted in 1881 by Vasili Verestchagin. It should be noted that the artist’s brother was killed during this campaign.

However what he saw on the battlefield left a mark on his soul, which he turned into a number of pieces of rather anti-war art:

Apotheosis by

“The Apotheosis of War, dedicated to all great conquerors, past, present and future.” Currently in the collection at the Tretyakov. Based in theory on the death monuments left by Tamerlane in the 14th Century, it was one of the first pieces of hyper-realistic anti-war art.

"The Road of the War Prisoners, 1878-1879," portraying the route traveled by captured Turkish troops. By Vasili Verestchagin. Currently in the Brooklyn Museum.

“The Road of the War Prisoners, 1878-1879,” portraying the route traveled by captured Turkish troops. By Vasili Verestchagin. Currently in the Brooklyn Museum.

Having seen the elephant, he settled abroad for a while and painted progressively darker subjects such as “Blowing from Guns” a study of the British executions in India following the Sepoy Mutiny.

"Blowing from Guns," by Vasili Verestchagin

“Blowing from Guns,” by Vasili Verestchagin

His images of military subjects included an extensive series of works centered on the Napoleonic Wars, in particular the little Emperor’s journey into Russia in 1812, which were completed in 1893.

"The Arsonists. Executions in Moscow 1812," by Vasili Verestchagin

“The Arsonists. Executions in Moscow 1812,” by Vasili Verestchagin

"Shoot those with weapons in their hands" goes the order from Napoleon on captured Russian civilians/partisans, by Vasili Verestchagin

“Shoot those with weapons in their hands” goes the order from Napoleon on captured Russian civilians/partisans, by Vasili Verestchagin

"Hold on! Let them get closer!" -- Russian partisans wait to attack French army stragglers during the Great Retreat, by Vasili Verestchagin

“Hold on! Let them get closer!” — Russian Opolchenie militia partisans wait to attack French army stragglers during the Great Retreat, by Vasili Verestchagin

Well traveled, he popped up in the Philippines during the American campaign there against the local Muslim insurgents.

There he was cited as having replied when asked if the subject was worth his time, as the scale was nothing like that of Napoleon’s battles, which he was known for painting depictions of, saying, “You may call it a small war if you like, but it is none the less a fierce one. War is war everywhere. It is today what it was yesterday – what it will be tomorrow. Always the same.”

Now in his sixties, his work seemed muted, and not quite as vibrant by that stage:

Spy, 1898. by Vasili Verestchagin

Spy, 1898. by Vasili Verestchagin

Far From Home, by Vasili Verestchagin

Far From Home, by Vasili Verestchagin

By the time the Japanese finally decided they had enough of Imperial Russia’s shit over Manchuria and Korea and started a war with the Motherland in 1904, Verestchagin rushed to the fray, sketching scenes around embattled Port Arthur.

While accompanying the Russian fleet on a sortie against the Japanese aboard the new 12,000-ton battleship Petropavlovsk, flagship of the Pacific Fleet and war chariot of the great Admiral Makarov, Verestchagin was killed. You see the pre-dreadnought struck a Japanese mine and, in addition to Makarov, 26 officers and 652 men of the Russian Navy, the waves of the cold sea called Vasili Verestchagin down to the deep for one final roll call.

Some 50 of his works are at the Tretyakov while others are around the world.

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