Exhibitions: European Paintings

Vasili Vereshchagin: The Road of the War Prisoners

In the winter of 1877, Vasili Vereshchagin, Russia’s great war correspondent and battle painter, traveled with the Russian army to Plevna (today Pleven) in northern Bulgaria to cover the Russo-Turkish War. During the Russian assault, which wounded the artist and took the life of his younger brother, Vereshchagin witnessed firsthand the price of a Russian victory over the Ottoman Empire. In late February 1878, Vereshchagin, now armed with forty sketches of battle, returned to Paris to paint, in the combined style of Gustave Courbet and the young Impressionists, what would become his masterpiece of Critical Realism: the Balkan series, twenty-five large canvases depicting war as tragic error. In The Road of the War Prisoners, Vereshchagin paints the defeated Turks freezing to death while marching to Russian work camps in Romania. Vereshchagin recalled the event years later, in 1891: "The road from Plevna to the Danube for a distance of thirty to forty miles was literally strewn with the bodies of frozen and wounded Turks. The frost set in so suddenly, and with such severity, that the brave defenders of Plevna in their stiff frozen overcoats were too weak to resist it, and by ones and twos fell on the road, and were frozen to death.... The first few days there was nobody to remove the dead and dying, so that passing carts and gun-carriages crushed the bodies into the snow and rendered it impossible to extricate them without spoiling the road."

In March 1879, Vereshchagin sent The Road of the War Prisoners, the first completed painting from the Balkan series, to St. Petersburg to assess the czar's interest in purchasing it for seven thousand rubles. The court rejected the painting for its "impossible subject," and it only sold later, in 1891, in New York where American collectors still reeling from the horrors of the Civil War were sympathetic to Vereshchagin's message.