Crucifixion by the Romans (1887)

Vasily Vereshchagin (1842-1904)

Art facts:

  • Artist: Vasily Vereshchagin
  • Currently аt Brooklyn Museum, NY
  • Original size: 115.9″ x 155.9″ inches
  • This work is linked to Matthew 27:38-44

About the artist: 

            Vasily Vereshchagin, born in 1842, may well have been the first anti-war artist, and certainly the first such painter to gain international recognition in depicting the horrors of warfare. If you’ve never heard of Vasily Vereshchagin, it’s not surprising. Artists who don’t paint “pretty” pictures seldom maintain much name recognition after their death; his being Russian was a negative factor as well. But, had you lived back during the latter part of the 19th-century, that would not have been the case. His name was instantly identified with his art. His work depicting what he saw and experienced during the 1860s and 1870s in the war-torn regions of the Middle East and Central Asia. Several visually powerful European military leaders of his time refused to look at them and forbid their soldiers to do so either. His painting, The Apotheosis of War (top), dating from 1870, but shown widely all over Europe for the remainder of the century, was one example of this refusal. Such actions demonstrated the unwillingness of those in power to confront the horror of war even decades after the conflict ended.

            Vereshchagin’s depictions of war depicted both past of present, starting with Napoleon, down through the British occupation of India, the Russian conflict with Turkey (1877-78), as well as the Boer Wars in South Africa (1879-1915). At one point in time, the Russian government forbid the display or printing of Vereshchagin’s work since they deemed it as showing the army in a “bad light.” The British were outraged that he painted so realistically their practice of tying colonial revolutionaries in India to the business end of cannon in executing them. He depicted native fighters in Afghanistan and Turkistan collecting decapitated heads for ransom (thus resulting in the pyramid of skulls picked clean by vultures in Apotheosis of War).    Vereshchagin painted the dead and dying left along snow-covered roads, Napoleon executing prisoners (Russians) within the Kremlin walls, even the selling of children into slavery (Afghanistan). There have always been those who have long relished and collected military art. But even for them, as well as those who pursued art featuring far off people, places, and things, Vereshchagin’s work required a strong stomach.

            Vereshchagin’s version of the crucifixion has almost a movie-like quality, based upon the artist’s intimate familiarity with the garb and appearance of the descendants of those present at Christ’s crucifixion.

About the painting:

            “Crucifixion by the Romans” is a beautiful example of Vereshchagin’s passion for late 19th-century European academic painting. Theatrically staged in 1st-century A.D. Jerusalem, the picture is typical of the dramatic historical spectacles, capital punishment under the Roman Empire, that wowed period audiences across Europe and America. Today the painting continues to impress viewers with its monumentality and academic exoticism or Orientalism, which Vereshchagin learned firsthand in Paris from the style’s principal exponent, Jean-Léon Gérôme.

            “Crucifixion” is not, however, an example of Russian avant-garde painting, the focus of Brooklyn’s collection, which in Vereshchagin’s own lifetime meant critical depictions of modern Russian society or Critical Realism. “Crucifixion by the Romans” is a powerful expression of Vereshchagin’s foray into Orientalism. As such, it merits greater study and exposure than it could get here [emphasis added], where it was last on view in 1932.

Fair enough. But if that epic painting “merits greater study and exposure,” perhaps it should be transferred to another museum where it could receive those benefits, remaining in the public domain instead of (potentially) disappearing into the collection of an oligarch. The museum had famously transferred a large portion of its costume collection to the Metropolitan Museum when Brooklyn determined that it could not appropriately care for and exhibit it.

            But according to Sally Williams, the museum’s public information officer, Brooklyn “had not given thought to transferring [the Vereshchagin] to another museum, as was done with the costume collection.”

Brooklyn’s two remaining Vereshchagins can be seen in the museum’s third-floor European gallery.