“1812” Napoleon I in Russia

 

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“1812”
 
NAPOLEON I IN RUSSIA


GAINSBOROUGH. By Walter Armstrong, Director of the National Gallery, Ireland. With 62 Photogravures and 10 Lithographs in Colour. £5 5s. net.

LEONARDO DA VINCI. From the French of Eugène Muntz. In 2 vols., with 20 Photogravures, 26 Coloured Plates, and about 200 Text Illustrations. £2 2s. net.

MEISSONIER. By Vallery C. O. Greard. From the French by Lady Mary Loyd and Florence Simmonds. With 38 Full-page Plates, and 250 Text Illustrations. £1 16s. net.

CORREGGIO. By Corrado Ricci. Translated by Florence Simmonds. With 16 Photogravures, 21 Full-page Plates in Colour, and 160 Illustrations in Text. £2 2s. net.

REMBRANDT. By Emile Michel. Edited by Frederick Wedmore. With 76 Full-page Plates and 250 Text Illustrations. £2 2s. net.


NEW LETTERS OF NAPOLEON I. Omitted from the Edition published under the auspices of Napoleon III. Translated from the French by Lady Mary Loyd. 15s. net.

NAPOLEON AND THE FAIR SEX. From the French of Frédéric Masson. With a Portrait. 6s.

LONDON: WILLIAM HEINEMANN.
21 Bedford Street, W.C.
‘Author’s

“1812”
NAPOLEON I IN RUSSIA
BY
VASSILI VERESTCHAGIN
WITH AN INTRODUCTION BY
R. WHITEING
Illustrated from Sketches and Paintings by the Author
‘Printer’s
LONDON
WILLIAM HEINEMANN
1899

This Edition enjoys copyright in all countries signatory to the Berne Treaty, and is not to be imported into the United States of America.


CONTENTS
  Page
 Introduction1
 On Progress in Art16
 Realism24
INapoleon53
IIThe Burning of Moscow180
IIIThe Cossacks220
IVThe Grande Armée227
VThe Marshals256

FULL-PAGE ILLUSTRATIONS
  Page
Vassili VerestchaginFrontispiece 
A Dispatch 72
Russian Grenadiers 78
At Borodino 92
Looking towards Moscow 108
Disillusion 128
On the Way Home 145
Bivouac 155
Despair 162
At a Council of War 176
Armed Peasant 186
In a Russian Church 197
Ney and the Staff 252

“1812”
NAPOLEON I IN RUSSIA

INTRODUCTION

The following pages are not offered to the reader as a history of the invasion of Russia by Napoleon. They are but the statement of the basis of observation on which M. Verestchagin has founded his great series of pictures illustrative of the campaign. These pictures are now to be exhibited in this country, and the painter has naturally desired to show us from what point of view he has approached the study of his subject—one of the greatest subjects in the whole range of history—especially for a Russian artist. The point of view is—inevitably in his case—that of the Realist; and this consideration gives unity to the conception of his whole career and endeavour. He has ever painted war as it is, and therefore in its horrors, as one of its effects, though not necessarily as an effect sought in and for itself. He has tried to be “true” in all his representations of the battle-field. His work may thus be said to constitute a powerful plea in support of the Tsar’s Rescript to the Nations in favour of peace. My meaning will be best illustrated by a short sketch of M. Verestchagin and his work, as painter, as soldier, and as traveller.

He was born in the province of Novgorod, in 1842, of a well-to-do family of landowners. The son wished to be an artist; the father wished to make him an officer of marines. As the shortest way out of the difficulty, he became both. He passed his work-hours at the naval school, and his play-hours at a school of design, working at each so well that he left the naval school as first scholar, and eventually won a silver medal at the Academy of Fine Arts. He entered the service, but only for a short time, and he was still three years under twenty when he quitted it to devote himself wholly to art.

He was a hard-working student, though he always showed a strong disposition to insist on working in his own way. When Gérôme sent him to the antique, he was half the time slipping away to nature. He played truant from the Athenian marbles to flesh and blood. In the meantime he was true to the instinct—as yet you could hardly call it a principle—of wandering from the beaten track in search of subjects. Every vacation was passed, not at Asnières or Barbizon, but in the far east of Europe, or even in Persia, among those ragged races not yet set down in artistic black and white. He had been on the borders of a quite fresh field of observation in these journeys; and he was soon to enter it for a full harvest of new impressions. It was in 1867; Russia was sending an army into Central Asia, to punish the marauding Turkomans for the fiftieth time, and General Kauffman, who commanded it, invited the painter to accompany him as an art volunteer. He was not to fight, but simply to look on. It was the very thing; Verestchagin at once took service on these terms with the expedition, and in faithfully following its fortunes, with many an artistic reconnaissance on his own account, he saw Asia to its core.

He returned from a second Asiatic journey to settle at Munich for three years; and here he built his first “open-air studio.” “If you are to paint out-door scenes,” he says, “your models must sit in the open;” and so he fashioned a movable room on wheels, running on a circular tramway, and open to sun and air on the side nearest the centre of the circle, where the model stood. The artist, in fact, worked in a huge box with one side out, while the thing he saw was in the full glare of day; and by means of a simple mechanical contrivance he made his room follow the shifting light.

After a long rest at Munich, he was impatient for action once more, and in 1873 he set off for British India.

Verestchagin filled one entire exhibition with his Indian studies. They form a definite part of his collection, a section of his life-work. Amazing studies they are. The end of his sojourn coincided with the visit of the Prince of Wales, and he saw India both at its best and at its worst. In one immense canvas he has represented the royal entry into Jeypore, the Prince and his native entertainer on a richly-caparisoned elephant, and a long line of lesser magnates similarly mounted in the rear. A scene of prayer in a mosque is noble in feeling, and it exhibits an amazing mastery of technique. The Temple of Indra, the Caves of Ellora—all the great show-places—are there, with their furniture of priests, deities, monsters, and men-at-arms. He made a prodigious journey, from St. Petersburg by Constantinople to Egypt, Hindostan, the Himalayas, and Thibet.

On his return he saw a great national subject at last—the Russo-Turkish War. He followed the armies and saw it all, still as a civilian in name, but as a soldier in fact. He could not keep out of it, both from patriotism and from artistic conscientiousness. On one occasion his desire to study the effect of a gun-boat in the air nearly cost him his life. When the Russians were preparing to cross the Danube opposite Rustchuk, their engineers found it almost impossible to carry on their surveys for a bridge, owing to the proximity of the Turkish gun-boats. Some men were accordingly sent out to lay fixed torpedoes across the river to prevent the approach of the gun-boats. But they themselves required protection while engaged in the service, and a few torpedo-launches were accordingly ordered to patrol the river for that purpose. They were not to wait to be attacked, but to boldly assume the offensive, and sink or drive off the big gun-boats. It was a most dangerous duty, and when Verestchagin asked permission to serve in one of the launches the officer in command tried to deter him. “Russia has many hundreds of officers like me,” he said, “but not two painters like you.” Verestchagin, however, was allowed to have his way. The launch he chose was very swift; it went almost at the speed of a train. It soon came in sight of one of the gun-boats, to the great terror of the Turkish crew. They could be seen running about the deck shouting and shaking their fists at one another. The gun-boat turned tail at once, but the little torpedo-launch gained on it every moment. By this time the whole Turkish force had taken the alarm, and a fire was concentrated on the little launch both from the gun-boat and the banks of the river, under which it was evident she could not live. She pushed on, however, shoved the torpedo under the bows of the Turk, and—it hung fire. It touched her fairly, but the wire connecting with the fuse had been cut in half by shot. Having done this, or rather having failed to do it, the launch was carried away by the tide, and just as she got clear of the vessel the Turks renewed their awful fire from ship and shore. Verestchagin suddenly felt a sickening sensation, as if he had been roughly pushed, and putting his hand to the place found a wound that would admit his three fingers. At this moment the crew of the Russian launch saw another Turkish monitor coming towards them, and firing as she came, so that they stood a good chance of being caught between these two monsters—as they might fairly be called in relation to the size of the launch. However, the launch turned and ran, closely pursued by the nearest gun-boat, which she had amiably tried to destroy. The pursuer was fast gaining on them in their crippled condition, when, at a turn in the river, they saw a little creek. They made for it and were saved. The gun-boat could not follow for fear of going aground.

This incident nearly finished Verestchagin’s artistic career. He lay between life and death for weeks, but a devoted Russian nurse brought him round. Of course he went back to work again as soon as he could move, and in one way or other saw and painted nearly all of the campaign, especially Shipka, and the final rush on Constantinople.

De Lonlay gives us a characteristic picture of Verestchagin at this time.

“On November 24, 1877,” he says, “we were in Bulgaria, at the foot of the great Balkans. Our little expeditionary corps, commanded by the brave General Daudeville, had just taken possession of a city after an obstinate fight, and was still trembling with the excitement of the struggle. We ran through the deserted streets of the Turkish quarter, which had been abandoned by its inhabitants. Everywhere we saw the same lamentable signs of devastation—doors broken open, windows smashed; and within the houses, furniture in fragments, heaps of wearing apparel in rags, and a quantity of the stuffing of the ottomans strewed all about, the Bulgarian pillagers having cared only for the ornamental coverings. Amid all this confusion lay the bodies of three Redifs and an Arnaut. The marauders had already stripped them of their uniforms, leaving them nothing but a little underclothing. A little further on, a Redif, still dressed in his blue tunic, lay on the ground. Suddenly, there came clattering by a troop of Cossacks who had just been hunting the Turkish runaways. They were rough-looking fellows, these soldiers in their white linen, all in rags, and with their fur caps browned by the bivouac fires and half bare with the wear and tear of the campaign; but among them I remarked an elegant horseman who contrasted strongly with the rest of the troop. He was dressed half like a soldier and half like a tourist. He wore a high Circassian cap in Astrakan fur trimmed with silver. From his breast hung the officer’s cross of the military order of St. George,[1] a high distinction justly envied in Russia. The handle and the scabbard of his poignard and sabre were in chiselled silver. I followed him a long time with my eyes, admiring his bearing. A little later on in the same day I found my unknown once more. He was sitting on a low camp-stool in a corner of the grand mosque, and making a study of the minaret. His aristocratic face, of a long oval, was ornamented with a beard of a chestnut colour, and it contrasted strangely with the olive complexion and high cheek-bones of the Mussulman-Cossacks who surrounded him and peeped curiously at the work he was doing. It reminded me of Salvator Rosa working in the midst of the bandits of the Abruzzi. At this point a common friend of both of us came on the scene and presented us to one another. I had before me the great Russian painter Basil Verestchagin, who had but just recovered from the serious wound received in the previous June. We talked for a long time of Paris and of the war. Verestchagin complained bitterly of not having been able to take part in the passage of the Danube, and see the winter campaign as he had seen the summer one. ‘What good luck you had,’ he said, ‘to follow Gourko in his expedition beyond the great Balkans! What things you must have seen, the massacre at Shipka, and the burning of Eski Zara. If you only knew how it enraged me to be tied down to my bed in the ambulance while the army was going on!’ Then he paid me a few compliments on the modest drawings which I was sending to the Monde Illustré, compliments which touched me very much as they were offered by such an eminent artist.

“A few days after, the branch of the Cossacks of the Don to which I was attached, and the regiment of the Grenadiers of the Guard, entered the pass of the Balkans by the route which leads to Statitza. At nightfall we halted on a plateau covered with snow, and where the temperature was below zero. We were therefore not at all disinclined to take refuge in an old Turkish block-house and to light up a good fire. There I found Verestchagin again, with Prince Tzerteleff, the former secretary of Ignatieff, and Prince Tchakowski, who were all following our columns as amateurs. Enveloped in our bourkas, we talked away for hours round this bivouac fire, Verestchagin telling us of his perilous expedition in Turkestan. I can still hear him talking in his soft and quiet voice of all those scenes of massacre and carnage which he had seen with his own eyes.

“A fortnight after, I was at Plevna, which had just fallen into the hands of the Russian army, and there I saw Verestchagin again. He was staying with General Skobeleff, governor of the city. The great artist was fresh from the terrible battles, and from the scenes of misery which he had seen in the camps of the Turkish prisoners, and he was projecting another series of pictures. He was therefore, with his usual passion for accuracy, taking pains to collect arms and uniforms of the enemy as models. He showed great joy when one of the officers present offered to conduct him to the place in which the spoils of the garrison of Osman Pacha were stored. By the light of a torch carried by a grenadier he rummaged a long time in this heap of Peabody-Martini rifles, covered with mud and dust, torn uniforms stained with blood, blue vests with red lacings of the Nizams, brass-buttoned tunics and red waistbands of the Redifs, etc. Next morning we separated. Verestchagin followed the column of Skobeleff in its march to Shipka; and I went to Orkanie to rejoin the corps of General Gourko.”

As a war-painter Verestchagin is a great moralist, and he is a great moralist because he is quite sincere. He paints exactly what he sees on the battle-field, and he is far in advance of the French, who are the fathers of this species of composition, in his rendering of the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, about this bloody sport of kings. There was a whole wide world of difference in spirit between his little military gallery and the big one at Versailles. The earlier Frenchmen give us pretty uniforms, a monarch prancing on his steed in the moment of victory, an elegantly wounded warrior or two in the foreground, obviously in the act of crying, “Vive la France!” a host in picturesque flight, a host in picturesque pursuit, waving banners, and a great curtain of smoke to hide the general scene of butchery, with supplementary puffs for every disgusting detail. Verestchagin’s manner, on the contrary, passing like a breeze of wholesome truthfulness, lifts this theatrical vapour, and shows us what is below—men writhing out their lives in every species of agony by shot and bayonet wounds, by the dry rot of fever, by the wet rot of cold and damp; and finding their last glance to heaven intercepted by the crows or the vultures, waiting for a meal. All this is very shocking, but looked at in the right way it is supremely moral.

His work is his biography. He has lived every one of his pictures, and he has often had to study at almost the cost of his life. All that he represents he has seen; all that he relates with his pencil he has lived. These pictures are just so many chapters detached from his history. They are the work of an artist of an exceptional nature; and are worthy of a book written on the critical method of Sainte-Beuve, a book wherein the man would occupy a place at least as considerable as the work itself; for the one and the other are inseparable. He is the first Russian painter who has given his countrymen a true impression of war—something besides those official pictures where victory is displayed and never defeat. Even when he paints victory he never separates it from its sadness, its ruin, its misery, its mourning beyond relief. I seem to have always before my eyes, as in a dream, that pyramid of piled-up skulls which he met with somewhere in his wanderings, and of which he has made one of his most striking pictures. He wrote underneath it, “Dedicated to the conquerors.”

Verestchagin had done nothing but draw; painting had frightened him. Gérôme and Bida in vain tried to persuade him to begin. When he returned from his second journey to the frontiers of Persia, among those nomadic tribes with changeless manners, who must have descended from Abraham, he showed his album and note-books to the two painters, and they pressed him all the more. Bida said, “No one draws like you,” and he accepted a few sketches, one of which is to be found in his famous Bible.

After his Asiatic campaign he had three years’ work at Munich, an enormous and improbable labour, so much so that his enemies insinuated that such a number and variety of pictures could not be the work of a single man, and that Verestchagin had been helped by German painters. The calumny reached St. Petersburg, where he was exhibiting at the time. At his request the Art Society of Munich opened a thorough inquiry into the matter. Models, porters, everybody that knew anything about it, testified on oath that no painter but Verestchagin had so much as entered the atelier. The report, covered all over with the best signatures of Munich, and with a postscript of the most flattering kind, was sent on to the Russian capital. When they gave Verestchagin the surname of the Horace Vernet of Russia, no doubt they thought they were saying something in his praise; but he certainly had a right to feel calumniated, for the general impression left by his work is not admiration for princes nor glorification of war. In telling the truth feelingly about the sufferings of the soldier, without distinction of nationality, with as much pity for the vanquished as for the victors, Verestchagin has shown himself essentially human. His pictures, with their poignant reality and elevated philosophy, are at the same time a terrible satire on ambitious despots. Verestchagin is a courtier of nothing but misfortune. A pupil of Gérome, he seems to have travelled very much in search of himself. Sometimes he has drawn near to Meissonier, then there is something in him of Géricault and of Courbet, and again he is a true Impressionist in the best acceptation of the term.

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