Vasili Vasilievich Vereshchagin
- Vasili Vasilievich Vereshchagin
- Pearl Mosque at Delhi, 1876-79
- oil on canvas
- 155 1/2 by 197 in., 395 by 500 cm
Sale: American Art Galleries, New York, Vassili Verestchagin Collection sale, November 17-18, 1891, lot 61 (titled The Private Mosque of the Great Moguls in the Palace of Delhi)
Mrs. Roland O. Lincoln, Boston (acquired directly from the above sale)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (acquired directly from the above in 1892)
New York, American Art Galleries, Exhibition of the Works of Vassili Verestchagin,
November-December 1888, no. 61 (traveling exhibition, visiting the Chicago Art Institute, January-March 1889, as well as locations in St. Louis, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Boston among others)
V. Vereshchagin, Exhibition of the Works of Vassili Verestchagin, Illustrated Descriptive Catalogue, New York, 1888, p. 45, no. 61
"Fine Arts: The Verestchagin Exhibition," The Nation, November 22, 1888, p. 424
"Current News in Art," The New York Times, March 11, 1892
A.K. Lebedev, Vasilii Vasilevich Vereshchagin: Zhizn i tvorchestvo, Moscow, 1972, p. 159, illustrated
A.K. Lebedev and A. Solodovnikov, Vasilii Vasilevich Vereshchagin, Leningrad, 1987, pl. 30, illustrated
Vasili Vasilievich Vereshchagin's Pearl Mosque at Delhi comes to auction directly from the prestigious collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and is the most monumental canvas from the artist's highly sought-after Indian series, serving as a dazzling example of Vereshchagin's virtuosic and versatile talent at the height of his career.
Vereshchagin was unquestionably the most famous of all Russian painters during his lifetime, and it would be difficult to exaggerate the global sensation caused by his exhibitions in Europe, Russia and America. "He is undoubtedly the most original artist of all that Russia has produced" wrote Ivan Turgenev in 1879 at the time of the painter's major Paris exhibition, the first such one-man show by a Russian artist ever to be held in the French capital. "No man has ever painted like Vereshchagin," declared the art critic of the Viennese newspaper Fremdenblatt on first encountering Vershchagin's oeuvre. "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...'There is always something new from Africa' was a saying of the Romans; we might paraphrase it in regard to Russia, and ask ourselves what surprises of culture might yet be in store for us in Siberia" (as quoted in The Vereshchagin Collection Catalogue, Waldorf Astoria, 1902, p. 10).
By the mid-1800s Vereshchagin was known the world over, yet his artistic career began much later than those of his contemporaries. He was born in Cherepovets, a provincial town in northern Russia, to a family of the gentry. At his mother's insistence he was enrolled in the Aleksandrovsky Junior Military School at Tsarskoe Selo when he was only eight years old, and later he advanced to the nearby Naval Cadet School. Though he grew frustrated with the hierarchical structures of a military education, he so flourished in his drawing classes that his instructor encouraged him to eschew his naval training and pursue a career as an artist. Soon he did exactly that, dedicating all his time to cultivating his painterly technique despite the protests of his parents. Indeed this decision to defy social expectations was fairly characteristic of the times; Vereshchagin may be considered a prominent member of the 19th-century Russian liberal intelligentsia, one of the many young radicals who challenged the beliefs of the previous generations. "They represented a new type of man who may be defined as an intellectual, politician and conspirator rolled into one, but first and foremost as a man who says 'no' to the existing order" (E. Lampert, Sons Against Fathers; Studies in Russian Radicalism and Revolution, London, 1965, p. 89).
In 1860 he enrolled at the Saint Petersburg Academy of Arts thanks to a two-year scholarship, but he quickly tired of the institution's conservative policies and, several months before the well-known revolt of the Itinerants, Vereshchagin led various protests against the Academy, once even setting fire to his own sketches. He left the school in 1863 to travel throughout Georgia and the Caucasus. A year later he left Russia altogether, moving to Paris to study at the esteemed École des Beaux-Arts under Orientalist master Jean Léon Gérôme. It was unusual for a foreigner to be accepted to the school, but Gérôme had seen Vereshchagin's drawings from the Caucasus and was determined to work with the young artist. Under Gérôme's strict tutelage Vereshchagin embarked on an intense course-load, sketching and painting up to sixteen hours a day. He was exposed to various contemporary trends and he was particularly influenced by Gérôme's Turkish and Egyptian genre scenes; as a result, he began to incorporate ethnographic elements of the "exotic" into his own imagery. Before long however, Vereshchagin again grew irritated with the rigorous demands placed on him, and a divide began to form between student and teacher. Vereshchagin preferred to sketch, but Gérôme insisted that he paint in oils and copy the works of the Western European masters to perfect his technique. A testament to the student's free spirit, he forcefully refused, stating "One must draw in such a way that not even one stroke is similar to Raphael's" ("Rukopis' V.V. Vereshchagina," Russian State Archive of Literature and Art, p. 718). In 1865 he abandoned his training and returned to the Caucasus, this time to study the local ethnic customs, particularly of the Shiite Muslims. Yet the influence of Gérôme's instruction—not only in choice of subject, but also in attention to fine detail and masterful implementation of light and color—are immediately apparent in Vereshchagin's drawings from this period and his many paintings that followed.
His early exhibitions in Russia and elsewhere in Europe were hugely successful, and many critics and fellow artists were in awe of the artist's talent. Ilya Repin, for example, declared him "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). In 1874, thanks to the sale of several works to collector Pavel Tretyakov, Vereshchagin acquired sufficient funds to visit India with his wife, and the couple embarked on a two-year expedition. No other major Russian artist had ever visited India, and so he was determined to travel extensively throughout the region, exploring Bombay, Madras, Delhi, Agra, Darjeeling and the Himalayas. Along the way he conducted research and executed numerous sketches for a new series of paintings, though not without difficulty:
Compared to his other destinations, travel in India...was much more difficult and stressful because of extremes of cold and hot weather; dangerous animals; tormenting insects, which deprived Vereshchagin and his wife of sleep; the dense terrain; and jungles, mountain passes, rivers, and steep gorges which required traveling by foot, horseback, ponies, bulls, boats and trains. Vereshchagin often had to hire new attendants at various points to carry newly acquired supplies, gifts, and Indian artifacts. In the tropical regions, he contracted malaria, which subsequently affected his general health. During the trip, he learned that the English suspected him of being a spy for the Russian military and believed that his sketches of mountain passages and streams were the results of a reconnaissance mission for Russian military penetration of the region (V.D. Barooshian, V.V. Vereshchagin: Artist at War, Gainesville, 1993, p. 54).
Despite these obstacles, Vereshchagin found much inspiration in the intensity of the landscape. He wrote to Pavel Tretyakov and declared, "I am sure that if you were transferred to Bombay, you would not be able to bear the dark blue, green, red, yellow colors here without serious pain in the eyes. Our 'wise' artists, having seen nothing beyond the Valaam and the Crimea, do not hesitate to pass verdicts on that which is beyond their understanding" (Letter to P. Tretyakov, April 17, 1887).
Oft considered the best, most technically adept output of his career, Vereshchagin's Indian series features numerous depictions of architectural monuments, for example the Taj Mahal, all of which the artist realistically captured with painstaking attention to detail, a testament to the lasting influence of Gérôme's instruction on his oeuvre. As Asoke Mukerji commented in a recent article, Vereshchagin aimed "to record 'the intricate jewelry of [the palaces'] architecture,' and felt that these monuments were not simply objects, but were organically linked with their natural surroundings. His use of the light-and-shade technique, using the strong sunlight of India to highlight the architectural beauty of the monuments, gives them an ethereal quality" ("As Russia Saw Us: The Paintings of Vereshchagin," The Guardian, November 21, 2010).
Upon Vereshchagin's return to Paris in 1876, he set to work on Pearl Mosque at Delhi, his largest canvas to date and perhaps the most monumental of his career; however the project was interrupted by the outbreak of the Russo-Turkish war in 1877, when he briefly set aside his work and served as a volunteer with the Russian Imperial Army, a life-changing experience that inspired his controversial Balkan series. When he returned to Paris in 1878 he set back to work on Pearl Mosque at Delhi, though producing such a grand composition with technical precision took several more months, and he did not complete it until the following year. He had visited the mosque itself in Delhi in the Red Fort, the capital of the Mogul empire and residence to the Imperial family of India until 1857. Completed in 1648, the Red Fort features a combination of Indian, Persian and Western European styles and remains one of the most iconic architectural monuments in all of India. The Pearl Mosque was a later but significant addition to the grounds; it was built in 1659 as a private mausoleum for Aurangzeb, the sixth Mogul Emperor of India who reigned from 1658 to 1707.
After several European exhibitions in the mid-1880s, Vereshchagin found himself in financial need, and although he hoped his oeuvre would remain forever in Russia, there were several masterworks he was unable to sell to collector Pavel Tretyakov, who was no longer seeking acquisitions at the time. Instead he decided to try his luck in America where a large new art market was flourishing, fueled by new American fortunes, and he traveled to New York for the first time in September of 1888 at the invitation of the American Art Association auctioneer Thomas Kirby as well as James F. Sutton, an art patron and dealer who had met Vereshchagin several times in Paris. These two men partnered to arrange a two-month exhibition for the artist.
In November of 1888, Vereshchagin's New York show, the first solo exhibition for any Russian artist in America, opened at the American Art Association's galleries near Madison Square Park and was a veritable blockbuster of its time, drawing several thousand visitors. Viewers were particularly amazed by the artist's anti-war imagery and his depictions of India and Asia. Reviews were overwhelmingly positive, and art critic Clarence Cook went so far as to describe the show as "an intellectual feast, such as none other presented to the public for the past twenty-five years" (V. Griboyedoff, "A Russian Apostle of Art," Cosmopolitan Magazine, 1889, p. 311). The present lot was exhibited under the alternate title The Private Mosque of the Great Moguls in the Palace of Delhi ("Pearl Mosque" being this mosque's official name, or Moti Masjid in Urdu) and Vereshchagin discussed it in his own text for the American Art Association catalogue:
Surrounded from all sides with white marble walls, the mosque is strongly reflected—no dark shadows—fresh, cool, airy. I like the Moslem mosques; the prayer is simple and not less solemn than that of the Christian's; but the Deity is not represented there in any painted or sculptured form. You may feel that God is present at your prayer, but where is He?—it is left to your soul to discover it (p. 45, no. 61).
The sheer scale of Pearl Mosque at Delhi left a tremendous impression on exhibition visitors, and an anonymous critic writing for The Nation praised the painting as a highlight of the exhibition:
The Private Mosque of the Great Moguls in the Palace of Delhi, No. 61, is [an] example of successful treatment of large masses of white. The white marble walls and floors of the court and portico are in diffused light, with strong reflections, and the painter has made good use of the opportunity to produce a striking effect with simple means. The broad expanses of white marble are painted with just sufficient detail, and the different values are rendered with much exactness of observation. Color notes of green and yellow, found in the costumes of the people praying in the portico, are introduced in the prevailing scheme of white with excellent results (November 22, 1888, pp. 423-424).
Vereshchagin's own larger-than-life personality was perhaps the only thing that could compete with the monumental impact made by the present lot at this exhibition. He was a regular fixture there, hosting gallery talks on themes ranging from poverty to women's civil rights, and his alluring charm contributed to the immense popularity of the show, which was so successful that it was transitioned into a traveling exhibition, visiting various American cities including Chicago, Baltimore and Boston. The entire collection returned to New York in 1891 and was sold on November 17 and 18 at the American Art Galleries' auction for a phenomenal total of $84,300. Pearl Mosque at Delhi was purchased for $2,100 by the collector and philanthropist Mrs. Roland C. Lincoln of Boston, who donated the piece to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in 1892.
Pearl Mosque at Delhi is the most accomplished painting from Vereshchagin's journey to India and his most significant canvas to appear at auction in over a century. Beyond its sheer magnitude in size, the work represents pure painterly perfection, with masterful chiaroscuro and precise detail, the result of several years of research, practice and execution. For an artist made famous by his provocative images of war, the present lot showcases Vereshchagin's supreme versatility in his ability to render beauty and peace, and meanwhile it underscores his preeminent position as one of the leading visual historians of the nineteenth century.