"The Most Theatrical Entertainment in New York” VERESHCHAGIN AND THE EXHIBITION OF RUSSIAN ART IN AMERICA
On August 27 1888, several New York newspapers reported on the arrival the day before of the ship Etruria, which had originated in Liverpool. A rather curious figure disembarked from the ship: “a man of powerful build, with massive shoulders and wearing a full black beard and mustache,” in the words of one journalist. A robust figure and broad shoulders, surmounted by a head framed in bushy black beard and hair,” observed another.
It was the Russian artist, Vasily Vereshchagin. He had been trying to get to America for roughly a decade, during which time he occasionally mentioned the possibility of an American exhibition in his letters, usually with the suggestion that huge sums of money could be made. However, not only was an American tour logistically difficult, Vereshchagin also seemed worried that his paintings might never return. In an 1887 letter to Pavel Tretyakov, Vereshchagin even confessed, “I think with horror about the fact that my best works will find themselves not in Russia, but somewhere in America."
Despite these concerns, Vereshchagin travelled across the Atlantic Ocean in 1888, invited by James Sutton and Thomas Kirby of the American Art Association. In October of that year, 59 enormous cases of paintings and objects arrived, under the charge of “two heavily-bearded and fierce-looking Russians, who," we are told, “have since been making frantic endeavours to master the English language." The plan was to launch a blockbuster exhibition in New York, treating American audiences to the art sensation that had already swept through the major cities of Europe.
Indeed, by this time Vereshchagin was internationally known for his incisive, and sometimes shocking, paintings of the atrocities of war. Enchanted with his celebrity, the American press followed this famous foreign artist closely throughout the autumn of 1888, making repeated mention of his adventures in travel and battle, the originality and intensity of his work, and his movement through the circles of New York high society. But they also, almost without exception, commented on the Russian painter's striking appearance.
For the reporters and art critics who followed Vereshchagin's tour, the Russian artist himself, along with his entourage, became perhaps the most compelling exhibit in an expansive collection that included paintings of Central Asia, the Balkans, India, Palestine and Syria, as well as jewellery, rugs and other objects that the artist had collected during his travels. They were, like the collection's densely painted scenes and splendidly decorated objects, something to be looked at. And more importantly, they were looked at from the ideological perspective of the West, consumed visually as the exotic people and things of the East. “Mr. Vereshchagin is Oriental in face," remarked one critic, “and himself might have sat for an Arab sheik or Jewish rabbi without any one being the wiser."
Another critic went even further, drawing on racialized and derogatory language to depict Vereshchagin as an uncivilized ethnic “Other": “Mr. Vereshchagin presented to his audience the aspect of a Tartar in evening dress. His long, black, forked beard, his keen eyes, his hooked nose, his roughly brushed hair, his suit, by no means well-fitting, his impetuous words, his nervous gestures, his uneasy walk to and fro as he spoke, had in them a suggestion, faint perhaps, but still there, of a sort of savagery in a conventional cage."
These physical descriptions have the effect of turning Vereshchagin into an ethnographic type, not unlike those he himself frequently drew. One might even say that the Orientalist - often called the “Russian Gerome" - became for his American audience an Oriental subject.
By considering the journalistic coverage of Vereshchagin's exhibition, we can understand, therefore, the painter's appeal for an American audience. For a nation that itself was outside the boundaries of a western European world, Orientalist art offered American viewers the possibility of inhabiting a western imperial perspective that aligned it with the colonial empires of Europe. By looking at Vereshchagin's art, therefore, American audiences could view the East as an “Other" to its supposedly civilized self. And by looking at Vereshchagin himself, the American art world - still trying to define itself as a major cultural tradition - could acquire legitimacy in opposition to the Russian's “savage" artistry.
But Vereshchagin was surely aware of this. In fact, he had already established a reputation as a savvy businessman, carefully cultivating his public image for international exhibitions. In the spirit of P.T. Barnum and Buffalo Bill, Vereshchagin was a quintessential 19th century showman, and crafted a performance of exotic Russianness that was greeted with much excitement by the American public.
Twenty-eight men worked around the clock to transform the American Art Association galleries; 16 alone were needed to haul the massive Persian rug from the street to the exhibition space. The exhibition opened on November 9, complete with an illustrated catalogue and two supplements penned by Vereshchagin. All three publications were sold at the exhibition, as were photographs of some of Vereshchagin's works. The exhibition included 107 paintings, 24 photographs of works not on display, six sets of sketches, 36 objects and curiosities collected in the artist's journeys, and 36 objects of Russian applied art. Enjoying considerable popularity, the tour would eventually be extended, first travelling to Chicago, and then Philadelphia, Boston, Pittsburgh and St. Louis.
The critic for “The Evening Star" called Vereshchagin's exhibition “the most theatrical entertainment in New York just now": “To step out of the daylight and rattle and busy jostling of 23rd street into the subdued artificial light, the bizarre arrangements of strange effects and the musky odors of the building containing the celebrated paintings is like stepping into another world, so strange is the interior of the Verestchagin [sic] gallery in its contrast with the scenes one has just left outside."
The exhibition began with a small chamber transformed into a Tartar tent, illuminated only by a teardrop-shaped pane of glass and immersed in an “almost suffocating odor". The multisensory performance was enhanced by Vereshchagin's assistants who offered aromatic tea to the visitors, as well as the music of Lydia Andreevskaya, a professionally-trained pianist who had been brought over to New York from Moscow (and whom Vereshchagin would later marry, but only after divorcing his first wife). The critic recollects the intoxicating scene: “In the soft half-light behind the hangings there sits a woman alone, playing the peculiarly plaintive melodies, pleading, wistful folk songs that are sung by the half wild Cossacks and the peasants of the Russian steppes. There is a Russian muzhik in native costume who serves native Russian tea from a samovarin [sic], and beyond, through a draped passage, are seen the arches of the mosque of Delhi, depicted in a blaze of sunshine on a canvas that is simply and grandly immense. The effect is realism personified, and if, as some of the critics say, it is more theatric than artistic, it is certainly impressive and interesting."
The impression on the critic is one of generalized Orientalist delight, evoking images not only of “half wild Cossacks" and “peasants of the Russian steppes", but also, by means of Vereshchagin's paintings of India, the architecture of Delhi. Taken together, the exhibition offered the American audience the image of a vague East, which was itself an eclectic melange of Russian, Tartar, Cossack and Indian elements.
And yet, despite this “dreamworld" vision of the East, the critic remarks on the exhibition's “effect of realism". This coupling of realism and Orientalism has, in fact, long been noted by art historians. Writing about the ethnographic premise of most Orientalist paintings, Linda Nochlin has concluded that “the strategies of ‘realist'... mystification go hand in hand with those of Orientalist mystification." And so, when confronted with a highly detailed picture of the Orient, the viewer assumes that the representation is objective and documentary and, thus, also devoid of any artistic presence or aesthetic value. These works offer themselves as accurate renderings of the East, rather than artistically or ideologically mediated interpretations.
When Vereshchagin brought his exhibition to America, both he and his art were perceived in this fashion: as authentic, but ultimately inartful representations of the East. In an article subtitled “Realism by the Square Yard", the critic for “The New York Herald" argued that “the artistic quality of the paintings of Vassili Verestchagin [sic] is in inverse ratio to their size." And indeed, the large size of Vereshchagin's canvases - like the artist's imposing stature and that of his hulking, “heavily-bearded" assistants - became a signifier of a gauche exoticism.
The large scale of Vereshchagin's paintings even necessitated specialized transport. Moreover, they were challenging to hang; in the galleries of the American Art Association, they had to be supported from the floor to keep them properly positioned. Viewers, too, found them difficult to take in, so much so that the exhibition catalogue opened with a notice: “Owing to the great size of some of the paintings, the Artist suggests that they be viewed from as great a distance as possible." The overall impression, then, was more of a spectacle than a display of high art. In their reviews, critics frequently mentioned the similarity of the exhibition to panoramas, to Madame Tussaud's galleries of wax sculptures, and other forms of popular entertainment.
While this made for an amusing performance, it also debased Vereshchagin's art in the eyes of many visitors, who recognized its fascination but nevertheless considered it unsophisticated. The objections often fell into patterns predictable for Orientalist modes of thinking. The colours were rich, but the draughtsmanship poor. The character studies were excellent, but the composition and perspective were faulty. These evaluations had the same effect as the descriptions of Vereshchagin's appearance, recognizing him as a curiosity, but categorizing him firmly as a “savage", one who had not yet learned the higher skills of painting. Or, in the words of one critic, he is simply a “second-rate war correspondent", but “not a reporter of the highest class... he lacks that thorough command of his language."
In light of these complaints, a critic from Chicago would write an especially insightful defence of Vereshchagin: “The Russian genius was categoried [sic] with the Parisian showman. He was charged with seeking to make money by brutal sensations effected with a paint brush. His canvases were large; therefore they were not artistic. They required strong light; therefore his pigments were spurious. Some of his pictures demanded literary elucidation; therefore they were not pure art. Against all this the impetuous painter, a soldier who knew war by participating in it, a humanist who has tried to reduce the sum of human misery by depicting its horrors, and a technician of supreme skill, burst into a spasm of indignant protest."
This article must have worked, because Vereshchagin fared especially well in Chicago. The first major monographic exhibition hosted by the Art Institute of Chicago, the Vereshchagin show attracted over 100,000 visitors, earned a profit of $14,000, and gained the museum 700 new subscribers. It was deemed an artistic and economic success.
Unfortunately, success at the museum did not translate into success on the market. After three years of travelling, and although Vereshchagin had not intended to sell his works in the United States (indeed he had feared just such an outcome), the entire collection was split up and sold off at auction in November 1891.
It was a disaster. Vereshchagin had hoped to make half a million dollars, but all of the paintings and objects sold for only $81,789. Some blamed the size of the pictures; after all, who could fit a 16-by-24-foot painting in their home? Vereshchagin's “The Future Emperor of India", for example, had been lauded as one of the largest paintings in the world. And while there had been speculation that Queen Victoria herself would acquire it, the massive picture ended up going to Edward Malley of New Haven, Connecticut, who bought it for the underwhelming sum of $4,125. After the sale, rather than donating “The Future Emperor of India" to a museum, Malley installed it in the East India Room of his large department store, Malley's.
For years, Malley's department store would advertise in the local newspapers, claiming that every “Yale man ought to... feast his artistic eye upon one of the finest, largest oil paintings in the country." In a certain sense, this was the painting's natural habitat: an Orientalist masterpiece in the centre of western capitalism's imperial fantasy. The Indian subject and its Russian artist were both, as a result of the American gaze, turned into an ethnic “Other" that could be bought and sold, purchased as an entertainment attraction for increasing economic gain.
At the New York auction, most of the paintings and objects from Vereshchagin's collection were sold in this way, disappearing into the private apartments of wealthy Americans, purchased as bric-a-brac or shiny baubles to ornament one's home or one's body. Devalued as objects of artistic worth, Vereshchagin's collection was interpreted by the market as a cache of souvenirs and trinkets. The particular Orientalist titillation of these transactions became evident in one of the more amusing reports from the auction floor: “A thigh ring for a dancing girl was eagerly bid for by a young man who at last secured it for $26, after which he immediately left the place blushing furiously when he found most of the women present turning around to look at him."
Just as Vereshchagin had collected these objects from the Orient and the non-western peripheries of the Russian Empire, so too did American buyers acquire them many years later as emblems of the East. But for the Americans, Vereshchagin's collection represented a kind of double Orientalism: it was comprised of objects from the East, but it was also created and curated by an artist who was himself considered non-western by the American public.
Whereas western audiences might have delighted in these Orientalist fantasies for a season or two, they also demanded that the boundary between East and West be reestablished. The westerner, after all, is only ever a tourist in the Orient. And so, having sold off Vereshchagin's collection, the public and the press turned on Vereshchagin the man, pitying him for his poor showing at the auction, but also speculating on his mental health: “If ever a really original and foreign painter received a pair of black eyes from this country, surely poor Verestchagin [sic] is the man. Personally misunderstood on account of his unhappy temperament, and critically massacred because it was supposed to be the proper thing, it is no wonder his wits have gone wool-gathering. His American experience will be recorded to the future as a tragedy of the history of art."
What this critic intuits is that Vereshchagin's story might have broad implications for the history of art. It is true that the image of the exotic “foreign artist" inspired a successful multi-city tour, but unfortunately, it also ensured that Vereshchagin's oeuvre was largely dismissed as frivolous ethnography or fashionable home decor. And as a result, it never made its way into canonical histories of western art. Once the most famous Russian artist in the world, today Vereshchagin is largely unknown to American art-goers.
VASILY VERESHCHAGIN. The Pearl Mosque at Agra. Late 1870s-early 1880s
Oil on canvas. 150 × 200.7 cm
Private collection (formerly Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College). Photo credit: HIP / Art Resource NY
Vereshchagin’s exclusion from the western art historical canon has continued to impact the American art world. Although Vereshchagin is probably the best-represented Russian artist in American collections (precisely because of the 19th century auctions of his works), already in the early 20th century his paintings began to be sold off. In 1905 Edward Malley sold “The Future Emperor of India" to the Maharaja of Jaipur. At the time, Malley remarked that while a lot of people had seen it over the years, he doubted if anyone recognized it as a great work of art. The painting now hangs at the Victoria Memorial Hall in Kolkata.
More recently, a number of American museums have chosen to deaccession their paintings by Vereshchagin. In October 2011, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts announced that Sotheby's would be selling one of its two paintings by Vereshchagin, “Pearl Mosque at Delhi" (1876-79), in order to finance the acquisition of Gustave Caillebotte's “Man at His Bath". A month later, the Brooklyn Museum of Art announced that it would be selling one of its three works by Vereshchagin: “Crucifixion by the Romans" (1887). And in 2014, Vassar College put both of its works by Vereshchagin - “The Pearl Mosque at Agra" (late 1870s-early 1880s) and “The Portico of a 17th Century Church in Yaroslavl" (c. 1894) - on the auction block. In an explanation of the sale, they claimed that the paintings' “conversion into funds for the acquisition of future works more beneficial to the teaching of the history of art is an essential aspect of the natural organic growth and stewardship of the art collection."
VASILY VERESHCHAGIN. Crucifixion by the Romans. 1887
Oil on canvas. 294.6 × 396.2 cm. Private collection (formerly Brooklyn Museum of Art, Brooklyn, NY)
These deaccessions expose the challenges that Orientalist paintings and “foreign artists" pose to the institutions of western art history. After the spectacle passes and the excitement ebbs, there is little room for artists like Vereshchagin in collections of world culture. At the most, museums keep one work by Vereshchagin as an example of the “Russian Gerome". But any more than one seems unnecessary; these pictures take up too much space, and require too much time to explain. And how can one make sense of such an unusual figure? How are we supposed to understand an art that challenges the categories of East and West, and that demands histories beyond an Orientalist framework?
As it happens, one possible answer to these questions has been posed by the Brooklyn Museum of Art itself. Although the museum chose to deaccession Vereshchagin's “Crucifixion by the Romans" in 2011, it also decided to reinstall his two pictures of the Russo-Turkish War - “A Resting Place of Prisoners" and “The Road of the War Prisoners" (both 187879) - in its European art galleries. Seen in a new context, no longer ostracized as Russian or Orientalist art, Vereshchagin appears to the contemporary American viewer as deeply modern and profoundly relevant. Writing for “The New York Times", Holland Cotter would make special mention of these two pictures: “Of the landscapes, Vasily Vereshchagin's circa 1877 eyewitness view of prisoners' freezing to death on a snow-clogged road during the Russo-Turkish War is the least familiar and most memorable. With its barely visible corpses it's a whited-out horror scene, like the photographs taken of the Lakota dead on the battlefield at Wounded Knee just over a decade later."
Referring to the late 19th century Massacre at Wounded Knee, Cotter aligns Vereshchagin's war scenes with one of the most traumatic episodes from American history. And in doing so, he erases Vereshchagin's “Otherness". He joins the American and Russian stories in a way that refuses to make distinctions between a civilized West and a barbaric East, but instead asks probing questions about the universal experiences of humanity and injustice.
This universalism was also, of course, part of Vereshchagin's original reception in the 19th century. The same critic who claimed that the artist was “Oriental in face" also noted that his Russo-Turkish pictures “forcibly recall our own civil war." But somewhere along the way, the possibility for this kind of connection across national borders - a resonance between Russian and American experience - was traded for a simplistic and distorting exoticization of the foreign. One cannot help but wonder, then, what would happen if scholars were to resist this tendency to divide art between East and West. What might happen if, instead of selling Vereshchagin, he - and the Russian tradition more broadly - were more fully integrated into western narratives of 19th century art?
I am grateful to the participants of the 2017 conference, “Russian Art Abroad”, sponsored by SHERA (Society of Historians of Eastern European, Eurasian and Russian Art and Architecture), CCRAC (Cambridge Courtauld Russian Art Centre), and CSAR (Centro Studi sulle Arti della Russia) for their comments on an early version of this article. Special thanks are also due to Liana Battsaligova for her extraordinary assistance in researching Vereshchagin.
- ‘A Foreign Art Celebrity’ // “The New York Herald”. 27 August 1888. P. 4.
- ‘Artist and Traveler’ // “The New York Times”. 27 August 1888. P. 8.
- See, for example, Vereshchagin’s letter to his wife, cited in A.I. Kudria, “Vereshchagin”. Moscow: Molodaia Gvardiia, 2010. P 236.
- N.G. Galkina, ed. “Vasily Vereshchagin’s Correspondence with Pavel Tretyakov, 1874-1898”. Moscow: Iskus- stvo, 1963. P. 69.
- ‘The Verestchagin Pictures Arrive’ // “The New York Times”. 14 October 1888. P. 12.
- On Vereshchagin’s two exhibition tours in the United States - the first in 1889-1891, the second in 1901-1902 - see Joseph O. Baylen and Jane G. Weyant, ‘Vasili Vereshchagin in the United States’ in “The Russian Review”. 30, no. 3, July 1971. Pp. 250-259.
- ‘Verestchagin’s Paintings’ // “The New York Times”. 9 November 1888. P. 5.
- ‘Schools in the Open Air’ // “The New York Daily Tribune”. 27 November 1888. P. 3.
- Vereshchagin famously studied with the renowned Orientalist painter, Jean-Leon Gerome, in Paris. For more on Vereshchagin as the “Russian Gerome,” see Maria Chernysheva, ‘“The Russian Gerome”? Vereshchagin as a Painter of Turkestan’ // “Journal of the International Association of Research Institutes in the History of Art”. 0096, September 2014. https://www.riha-journal.org/articles/2014/2014-jul-sep/chernysheva-vereshchagin. Accessed 15 November 2018.
- For the opposition between East and West, Orient and Occident, I draw heavily on Edward Said’s seminal study, “Orientalism” (1978). For an alternative interpretation of Vereshchagin through the theoretical perspective of Orientalism, see David Schimmelpenninck van der Oye, “Russian Orientalism: Asia in the Russian Mind from Peter the Great to the Emigration”. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010. Pp. 76-91.
- “Exhibition of the Works of Vassili Verestchagin. Illustrated Descriptive Catalogue”. New York: American Art Association, 1888. The supplements were published as: Verestchagin, “Progress in Art” (First Appendix to Catalogue of the Verestchagin Exhibition) and Verestchagin, “Realism” (Second Appendix to Catalogue of the Verestchagin Exhibition).
- ‘New York Notes’ // “The Evening Star”. 24 November 1888. P. 6.
- Linda Nochlin, ‘The Imaginary Orient’, in Nochlin, “The Politics of Vision: Essays on Nineteenth-Century Art and Society". New York: Harper and Row, 1989. P. 37.
- ‘Verestchagin's Show' // “The New York Herald". 9 November 1888. P. 7.
- “Exhibition of the Works of Vassili Verestchagin", n.p.
- Mrs. Scuyler Van Rensselaer, ‘The Verestchagin Exhibition' // “The Independent". 22 November 1888. P. 7.
- ‘Chicago Will See Them' // “The Chicago Daily Tribune". 23 December 1888. P. 24.
- ‘Chicago's Art Education' // “The New York Times". 1 April 1889. P. 1.
- ‘The Verestchagin Sale' // “The Collector". III, no. 3. 1 December 1891. P. 41.
- ‘The Verestchagin Sale' // “The New York Tribune". 19 November 1891. P. 7.
- “New Haven Morning Journal and Courier". 26 September 1895. P. 8.
- ‘At the Verestchagin Sale' // “The New York Tribune". 21 November 1891. P. 12.
- ‘Winding up the Season' // “The Collector", III, no. 14. 15 May 1892. P. 213.
- ‘Verestchagin Painting Sold to Lord Curzon' // “The Hartford Courant". 14 April 1905. P. 2.
- Press Release: Christie's London Russian Art Sale Led by Two Exceptional Paintings from the Collection of the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College by Russian Master. https://www.christies.com/about-us/press-archive/details?Press-ReleaseID=7168&lid=1. Accessed 15 November 2018.
- Holland Cotter, ‘Placement Is Politics in Brooklyn Museum Reinstallation' in “The New York Times". 19 May 2016. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/20/arts/design/placement-is-poli- tics-in-brooklyn-museum-reinstal- lation.html. Accessed 15 November 2018.
- ‘Verestchagin's Paintings'// “The New York Times". 9 November 1888. P. 5.
Oil on canvas. 123 × 92.4 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Oil on canvas. 61 × 41.2 cm. © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Oil on canvas. 240.8 × 171.5 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Photograph by Vezenberg & Co., St. Petersburg, between 1880 and 1886. Library of Congress, Washington, DC
From: “Exhibition of the Works of Vassili Verestchagin: Illustrated Descriptive Catalogue”. American Art Galleries, New York. 1888
Oil on canvas. 36 × 28 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Oil on canvas. 147 × 299 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Printed and sold by the American Art Association at Vereshchagin’s American exhibitions, c. 1890. Library of Congress, Washington, DC
American Art Galleries, New York, 1888
Oil on canvas. 213 × 168 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Now titled: The Prince of Wales at Jaipur, 4 February 1876. Oil on canvas. 498 × 698.5 cm
© Victoria Memorial Hall, Kolkata
Oil on canvas. 395 × 500 cm. Private collection (formerly Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA). Photo credit: HIP / Art Resource NY
Oil on canvas. 182.6 × 302.6 cm.
© Brooklyn Museum of Arts, Brooklyn, NY, Gift of Lilla Brown in memory of her husband, John W. Brown
Oil on canvas. 181 × 298.9 cm
© Brooklyn Museum of Arts, Brooklyn, NY, Gift of Lilla Brown in memory of her husband, John W. Brown