Vereshchagin and Doukhobors

Last year, the Tretyakov gallery hosted a large-scale Vasily Vereshchagin retrospective. As a leading expert on the Russian empire’s Asian policy put it:

Vereshchagin was also Russia’s Orientalist painter par excellence, using the adjective in the traditional art historical sense. An indefatigable traveller, he trekked through many Asian lands. Over the four decades that spanned his first trip to the Caucasus as a youth until his death in Pacific waters during the Russo-Japanese war, Vereshchagin journeyed to Central Asia, India, Tibet, the Ottoman Empire, the Philippines, Siberia, and Japan. Each of these trips resulted in sketches or canvases as well as published writings.

Vereshchagin was prolific and versatile, although remembered primarily as an orientalist and a war (and anti-war) artist. This gallery and Getty’s image collection should give an idea of his range. If you read Russian, this amazing site hosted by the Vologda oblast library seems to have everything published in Russian about the artist in the past 100 years, links to two other Vereshchagin sites, and a gallery.

Vereshchagin traveled a lot, and most of his work is based on this experience, but he was also a master of re-enactment painting. He produced a series of scenes from the 1812 war as well Three Executions, depicting the Crucifixion, the killing of Namdhari rebels by the British in 1872, and the hanging of the Russian regicides in 1881. This painting, kept in Kolkata, shows the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII, entering Jaipur on an elephant in 1876. Vereshchagin traveled in India in 1874-6 but did he actually observe the procession? This 1901 study is titled The Taking of the San Juan Heights by Roosevelt. Obviously, the artist couldn’t observe the action in 1898 but President Roosevelt asked the Secretary of State, Elihu Root, to help Vereshchagin observe “the lay of the land so that he may be able to draw his picture which will have real historic value.”

In addition to all this, Vereshchagin was a gifted and accomplished draftsman, as last year’s show made clear. Early in his career, he made two journeys to the Russian Caucasus – first in 1863-4, while nominally a student at the Russian Academy of Arts, and the second in 1865, taking a break from his studies with Jean-Léon Gérôme at the École des Beaux-Arts. Among others, he met Russian “spiritual Christians” living on the south side of the Caucasian mountains: Doukhobors in Slavyanka and Molokans in Novosaratovka, both villages now in Azerbaijan’s Gədəbəy district, in the very west, near the border with Georgia. You can find some of Vereshchagin’s Doukhobor/Molokan images in Lev Demin’s book; unfortunately, the rendering of The Doukhobors Praying (1865) doesn’t do justice to the original drawing. There’s a better version at, but a watermark appears when you zoom in.

Vereshchagin liked the Doukhobors, appreciating their honesty, industry and tenacity, but wasn’t much impressed by their religious views and joint prayers. He knew they were exiles, forcibly resettled by the imperial authorities from Southern Russia to the steppes by the Black Sea and then to the Caucasus – but surely he couldn’t have imagined that, less than a hundred years later, Doukhobors would be photographed “praying next to [a] sign supporting the Canadian Bill of Rights.” In some of the pictures taken in 1902 in Canada, Doukhobor women are wearing clothes and headgear similar to those in Vereshchagin’s drawing.

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