25 October 2017 - Session 2
Vasily Vereshchagin’s European Campaign (1870-1880s)
The name of Vasily Vereshchagin, a painter of battle scenes, was well-known in Europe in the 1870s and 1880s, largely thanks to his energetic exhibiting activity. In the course of two decades, Vereshchagin organized more than 20 personal exhibitions, the majority of them in different European cities, with several in London, Paris, and Vienna, as well as others in Berlin, Prague, Budapest, and other cities. No other Russian painter demonstrated such activity, or such a keen ability to attract and intrigue a sophisticated European public.
There were several reasons for the huge popularity of Vereshchagin’s exhibitions: they were unusual in their organization, with objects of material culture exhibited alongside the artist’s paintings about a particular country he had visited; he used state-of-the-art technology in the exhibition design; and his shows were frequently accompanied by music or lectures. He also used some populist tricks, such as introducing low admission charges, and even waiving fees entirely on certain days. His exhibitions resembled cultural, educational, and political acts, and sometimes attracted scandalous interest. People of all walks of life attended them, from titled figures of royal blood to the lower classes, resulting in vast crowds. His exhibition in Vienna, for example, was visited by approximately 100,000 people in 26 days, and more than 150 thousand catalogues of his exhibitions were sold in just two to three years. Periodicals published not only reviews by leading critics and a selection of images, but also the painter’s rich biography. He and his paintings were the subjects of caricatures; his canvases were even pronounced anathemas and elevated in poems.
The phenomenon of Vereschagin’s success can be attributed to many factors: the provocative subject matter of his works; his personal participation in military campaigns; the travel in far-away countries that was represented on his canvases; the supposed veracity of his imagery; his skill as a painter; and his ability to present his art to the maximum visual advantage. An English-language publication devoted to Vereshchagin in 1881 was subtitled Artist, Soldier, Traveller. These three aspects of his personality were indeed convincingly demonstrated by the Russian painter during his European exhibition campaign.
Vereshchagin in America
On August 26, 1888, the New York Times reported on the arrival by steamship of a man with “a robust figure and broad shoulders, surmounted by a head framed in bushy black beard and hair.” This was the Russian painter, Vasily Vereshchagin, already famous throughout Europe both for his realist depictions of war and Orientalist genre scenes. That fall, the American Art Association would launch an exhibition of over 200 paintings and sketches by Vereshchagin. Because of the show’s great success, it would travel to the Art Institute of Chicago, where over 100,000 visitors were greeted not only by Vereshchagin’s monumental canvases, but also by a traditional Russian tea served by waiters in Cossack uniform. Attesting to the enormous success of Vereshchagin’s trip, a considerable number of his works were sold at auction, many ultimately finding their way into prominent museum collections in the United States.
In this talk, I will consider Vereshchagin’s reception in America. By tracing press responses to Vereshchagin, I will discuss how a markedly Orientalized notion of the Russian artist coincided, paradoxically, with an understanding of Russian art as profoundly germane to the American context. Vereshchagin’s war paintings, especially, were likened to the still fresh trauma of the Civil War, and his reputation as an anti-war painter joined that of Tolstoy in shaping the image of a Russian, yet also global, pacifism. Today, as we grapple with the place of national artistic traditions in academic and museum cultures that have adopted global ambitions, this contrast between the universalizing and localizing tendencies in the reception of Vereshchagin—and by extension, Russian art more generally—remains deeply relevant. I will also, therefore, consider the recent deaccessions of several of Vereshchagin’s works from American collections. What might these decisions tell us about the history of Russian art in the United States, and about its place in American culture?
Konstantin Makovsky in America
My paper investigates how Konstantin Makovsky, an artist now considered of relatively minor importance in his homeland, became the premier ambassador of traditional Russian culture in the United States during the Gilded Age. Makovsky’s monumental A Boyar Wedding Feast (1883) was the prototype for an entire “boyar cycle” of paintings on themes of seventeenth century life that the artist produced between 1883 and 1901. That several of these canvases acquired real celebrity status among a broad American public invites intriguing questions about the reception of Russian culture in America at a moment when the emerging mass audience for art was attracted to the spectacular, the sentimental, and the exotic.
Makovsky’s paintings came to the United States in an era of skyrocketing prices for European works of art, joining celebrity pictures by Jean-François Millet, Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier, and Rosa Bonheur as the epitome of High Art. In 1885, New York jeweler Charles Schumann bought A Boyar Wedding Feast at the Antwerp Exhibition and installed it in a small art gallery in the rear of his store, one of several self-made men of business eager to bring culture to the masses while capitalizing on its marketing value. Within a year of its arrival, the painting was shown in a Brooklyn department store, reproduced as a wax tableau, and made available for purchase in both photogravure and chromolithograph prints. Two more boyar canvases followed and attracted enormous crowds at exhibitions from Milwaukee to San Francisco where they were hailed as masterpieces of world art.
Makovsky’s paintings certainly owed much of their success to their owner’s sensationalist display and advertising tactics. But their theatrical evocation of the national past also struck a deep emotional chord in the American public, humanizing Russian culture and bringing it to life with all the illusionistic skill at the artist’s disposal.