Vasily Vasilyevich Vereshchagin was one of the most famous Russian war artists and one of the first Russian artists to be widely recognized abroad. The graphic nature of his realist scenes led many of them to never be printed or exhibited.
Vereshchagin graduated first in the list at the naval school, but left the service immediately to begin the study of drawing in earnest. He won a medal two years later, in 1863, from the St Petersburg Academy for his Ulysses Slaying the Suitors. In 1864 he proceeded to Paris, where he studied under Jean-Léon Gérôme, though he dissented widely from his masters methods.
In the Paris Salon of 1866 he exhibited a drawing of Dukhobors chanting their Psalms. In the next year he was invited to accompany General Konstantin Kaufmans expedition to Turkestan. He was granted the rank of ensign. His heroism at the siege of Samarkand from June 2–8, 1868 resulted an award of the Cross of St George (4th class). He was an indefatigable traveler, returning to St. Petersburg in late 1868, to Paris in 1869, back to St. Petersburg later in the year, and then back to Turkestan at the end 1869 via Siberia. In 1871, he established an atelier in Munich, and made a solo exhibition of his works at the Crystal Palace in London in 1873. He made another exhibition of his works in St. Petersburg in 1874, where two of his paintings, namely The Apotheosis of War, dedicated to all conquerors, past, present and to come, and Left Behind, the picture of a dying soldier deserted by his fellows, were denied a showing on the grounds that they portrayed the Russian military in a poor light. In late 1874, he departed for an extensive tour of the Himalayas, India and Tibet, spending over two years in travel. He returned to Paris in late 1876.
After the Russo–Turkish war, Vereshchagin settled at Munich, where he produced his war pictures so rapidly that he was freely accused of employing assistants. The sensational subjects of his pictures, and their didactic aim, the promotion of peace by a representation of the horrors of war, attracted a large section of the public not usually interested in art to the series of exhibitions of his pictures in Paris in 1881 and subsequently in London, Berlin, Dresden, Vienna and other cities.
By the late 19th century Vereshchagin had gained popularity not only in Russia, but also abroad and his name never left the pages of the European and American press. From his earliest works, unlike most contemporary battle pieces depicting war as a kind of parade, Vereshchagin graphically depicted the horrors of war.I loved the sun all my life, and wanted to paint sunshine. When I happened to see warfare and say what I thought about it, I rejoiced that I would be able to devote myself to the sun once again. But the fury of war continued to pursue me, Vereshchagin wrote. One day, in 1882, Vereshchagin’s exhibition in Berlin was visited by German Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke the Elder. Vereshchagin brought Moltke to his painting The Apotheosis of War. The picture evoked a sort of confusion in the Field Marshal. After his visit to the exhibition, Moltke issued an order forbidding German soldiers to visit it. The Austrian war minister did the same. He also declined the artists offer to let Austrian officers see his pictures at the 1881 exhibition in Vienna free of charge.
In Russia a ban on exhibitions of Vereshchagin’s work was also enforced, as well as a ban on reproductions of them in books and periodicals amidst accusations of slandering the Russian army. The artist took these unjust accusations badly and burned three of his paintings, The Forgotten Soldier, They Have Encircled, and Pursue and They Entered.