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Details & Cataloguing

Important Russian Art

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Vasily Vasilevich Vereshchagin
1842-1904
THE SPY

bearing American Art Association stamps on the stretcher; further titled and inscribed with Samuel Ullman's name and address on a label and numbered 97 on the frame


oil on canvas
155.5 by 129cm, 61 1/4 by 50 3/4 in.
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Provenance

American Art Galleries, New York, Vassili Verestchagin Collection sale, 17-18 November, 1891, lot 97
Samuel Ullman, New York
Private Collection, United States, circa 1950

Exhibited

New York, American Art Galleries, Exhibition of the Works of Vassili Verestchagin, November-December 1888, no. 84 (travelling exhibition, visiting the Chicago Art Institute, January-March 1889, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Boston et al.)

Literature

V. Verestchagin, Exhibition of the Works of Vassili Verestchagin, Illustrated Descriptive Catalogue, New York, 1888, p.59, no.84
V. Verestchagin, Illustrated Descriptive Catalogue of the Vassili Verestchagin Collection, New York, 1891, p.58, no.97
'The Verestchagin Sale: Livelier Bidding on the Second Evening - The Prices Realized' in The New York Times, 19 November 1891

Catalogue Note

This monumental work forms part of Vereshchagin's important Balkan series, which documented his first-hand impressions of the Russo-Turkish War from 1877-78. It was included in Vereschagin's 1888 exhibition in America which travelled from New York to Chicago, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Boston. It was sold in 1891 at the landmark American Art Galleries auction in New York and has remained in private hands since. Its rediscovery is a major addition to X.

The incident depicted in The Spy was witnessed by Vereschagin while he was posted in the fortified town of Giurgevo on the lower banks of the Danube. He often used to walk along the avenues and boulevards with General Skobelev, who one day took him to witness the following scene:

"Come and see them leading away a spy," said General Skobeleff (father of my friend, Michael Skobeleff), to me. We seated ourselves on a bench opposite a house entered by Colonel P. of the staff, and an aide-de-camp of the commander-in-chief, who had just arrived from headquarters. Before the porch were posted soldiers with fixed bayonets, two in front and two on either side. The examination and interrogatories lasted some time, and half an hour must have elapsed before we saw the figure of a tall, dark man on the threshold. He was handsomely dressed, and wore his cap a little on one side. At the sight of the soldiers he turned somewhat paler, stopped, took a deep breath, and thrusting his hands into his pockets began descending the steps without moving his eyes from the soldiers" (American Art Association exhibition catalogue, 1888, p.59, no. 84).

In his autobiography, Vereshchagin describes how he longed to watch the trial proceedings and would have slipped into the courtroom had Skobelev not been present. The perpetrator 'was a certain Baron K.' he continues. 'I do not know whether he was really a spy; but probably compromising papers were found on him, for he was sent to Siberia. After two months however, he was allowed to return.' (V.Verestchagin, Painter – Soldier – Traveller, 1887).

A smaller, earlier version of The Spy (100 by 76cm; 1878-1879) hangs in the Museum of Russian Art in Kiev. It was exhibited in Moscow in 1883 where it was bought by the wealthy sugar baron, Ivan Tereshchenko. The subject is the same, though the perspective and details differ. The illustrated engraving in the 1888 and 1891 American Art Association catalogues is taken from the version in the Kiev Museum, possibly to save on the cost of producing a second engraving plate. Vereshchagin remarks on the two versions in a letter to Pavel Tretyakov on 25 October 1890, in which he gives Tretyakov the opportunity to buy some of the highlights of the American exhibition prior to the auction in New York. Second on the shortlist is 'The Spy - a repeat version, it is slightly larger and no worse than the original; in fact, it might even be the better one'. (A.Lebedev, G.Burova V.V.Vereshchagin i V.V.Stasov, Moscow, 1953, p.71).

Tretyakov missed the opportunity however, and in 1891 The Spy returned to New York together with the rest of the exhibition where all 110 paintings sold at the American Art Association's two-day auction on November 17 and 18th. The Spy sold for $605 to the collector and merchant Samuel Ullman, who also purchased several other works from the Balkan series, including The Turkish Hospital at Plevna and Skobeloff at Shipka (both of which also happened to be on Vereshchagin's shortlist of pre-sale offers to Tretyakov). The Spy is one of the most stirring images of his Balkan series, evoking both a sense of stoicism and intense Russian patriotism. It showcases his remarkable attention to detail from the buttons on the soldiers' jackets to the alarmed expressions of the women at the top of the staircase.

Vereshchagin's correspondence from Vienna in 1885 reveals that he had long planned to send an exhibition to America, hoping to earn enough money to allow him to concentrate on his 1812 series for the next decade. When the exhibition opened in New York in November 1888 over 10,000 visitors came to see it. It was the first solo exhibition for any Russian artist in America and the reviews were hyperbolic in their praise. Vereshchagin was sensitive to the power of accompanying music to his exhibitions: in Moscow, he had specified that Mendhelsson's Song without Words should be played to his Balkan series, and for his American touring exhibition he invited the young pianist Lydia Vasilevna Andreevskaya, a recent graduate of the Moscow Philarmonia, to play Russian music in the exhibition halls. The public were indeed very moved by his pacifist paintings which reminded of the suffering caused by the recent American Civil War. General William T. Sherman, American commander of the Union troops during this war, proclaimed Vereshchagin "the greatest painter of the horrors of war that ever lived" (W. Towner, The Elegant Auctioneers, New York, 1970, p. 130).

Few 19th century painters, if any, earned such universal recognition during their lifetime as Vereshchagin, and in large part this was due to the public reaction to the Balkan series. Ilya Repin recognized him as "a colossus, a great artist...a real Hercules" and "to a high degree an immense phenomenon in our life" (I. Repin, Vospominaniia o V.V. Vereshchagine 1904-1914, Moscow, 1948, pp. 340 and 343). An art critic of the Viennese newspaper Fremdenblatt commented "No man has ever painted like Vereshchagin. He is essentially new, modern, in the profoundest sense of the word. He is of our century, however Russian in manner and subject. No earlier period could have produced him" (as quoted in The Vereshchagin Collection Catalogue, Waldorf Astoria, 1902, p.10). A reviewer from The Daily Telegraph commented that the Balkan war series paintings "significantly heightened the interest" in the exhibition and in the artist himself, "whose genius and energy alone have gained him powerful and influential friends in England and in his own country....the war paintings, provided each with a lesson more striking than all that the peaceful traveler was ever capable of bringing home and conveying to the heart of the people" (quoted in V. Barooshian,V.V.Vereshchagin, Artist at War, Gainesville, 1993, p. 83).

In 1877, with the outbreak of the Russo-Turkish war, Vereshchagin felt overwhelming patriotism for the Slavic cause in the Balkans, and "...was also possessed by that 'charm in danger,' that exhilarating defiance of death, that recurring urge to escape from the intrinsic isolation of imaginative work into the thick of human action, or, as he simply put it, by 'a great desire to see with my own eyes a regular European war,' and to 'observe, feel and study people'" (, p. 60) He set aside his work and volunteered with the Russian Imperial Army.

He was accepted to the brigade and served under the leadership of General Dmitry Skobolev, Commander of the Caucasian Cossack Brigade, whom he had met and befriended in Turkestan years before. During the war, the artist moved from the staff of one Russian general to another, sketching the general terrain and positions of the army forces. He moved from the left bank of the Danube, witnessing Turkish forces bomb the nearby town, to the torpedo-mining squad in northern Serbia. It was under General Skobolev, however, that Vereshchagin had the most artistic freedom and carried out the widest range of tasks.  The writer Alexander Zhirkevich commented on the artist's startling presence with the troops:

He was tall, lean, somewhat round-shouldered, with a pale, oblong face full of intelligence and energy, with a large, open, fine forehead that seemed chiseled from ivory....He was refined in the simplicity of his behavior, modestly dressed, with the Cross of St. George in the buttonhole of his frock-coat—that was Vereshchagin, who by his external appearance alone immediately commanded amazing confidence and admiration ("V.V. Vereshchagin. Po lichnym vospominaniiam," Vestnik Evropy , April 1908, p. 498)

 

Important Russian Art

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London