Painting the graphic nature of grotesque realist scenes to capture the horrors of war as well as depicting Britain’s brutal colonial rule in India, the Russian painter, Vasily Vasilyevich Vereshchagin, is acclaimed as one of the most distinguished Russian battle painters of the time, and one of the first Russian artists to be widely recognised outside his home country.
Regarded as one of the great master painters of Orientalism, Vereshchagin was born on October 26, 1842, in an aristocrat family, in the city of Cherepovets in the Vologda region of Russia. In 1860, he graduated from the Naval Cadet Corps in St. Petersburg but he had a strong inclination towards the fine arts. Therefore, instead of continuing his naval career he enrolled in the Imperial Academy of Arts, a school that promoted the neoclassical style and technique.
In 1863, Vereshchagin’s painting “Massacre of Penelope's Suitors by the Returning Ulysses”, was awarded the small silver medal by the Academy. However, dissatisfied with the conservatism and idealistic conventions of the academic system of teaching, he left the academy the same year. After a visit to Paris in 1864, he decided to study with Jean-Léon Gérôme at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Embracing Orientalism in the tutelage of Gerome, Vereshchagin became one of the genre's leading exponent.
Devoting his life to travel, Vereshchagin acquired subjects for paintings from on-the-spot impressions in the Caucasus, in Crimea, along the Danube River, and in Turkistan with the Russian army. In the Balkans during the Russo-Turkish War, in which he was wounded, he was provided with the themes for some of his famous war pictures. He also painted in Syria and in Palestine and between 1885 and 1903 traveled in Russia, the United States, and Japan.
Vereshchagin's paintings of the scenes during the invasion of Russia by Napoleon in 1812 enjoyed extraordinary popularity, and innumerable reproductions of those paintings were made afterward. The pacifist and humanitarian movement of the time made use of his painting of a pyramid of skulls, “Apotheosis of War” (1871). His works are to be seen at the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow and at the State Museum of Russian Art in St. Petersburg.
During the Russo-Japanese War, aboard the flagship of Admiral Stepan Osipovich Makarov, Vereshchagin died on April 13, 1904.