This autumn’s Russian Art Sale in London will feature Vasily Vereshchagin’s awe-inspiring Crucifixion by the Romans, painted in 1887 in Paris. It will be offered on 28th November with an estimate of £1,000,000-1,500,000. The picture will be sold to benefit the acquisitions fund of the Brooklyn Museum, where it was exhibited for the last time in 1932.
Vasily Vereshchagin, (Russian, 1842-1904). A Crucifixion in the Time of the Romans, 1887. Oil on canvas, 116 x 156 in. (294.6 x 396.2 cm).
Sarah Mansfield, Head of Christie’s Russian Art Department says: “To offer such an incredible work is an exciting moment for any specialist. We would like to thank the Brooklyn Museum for their cooperation and we are looking forward to presenting Crucifixion by the Romans to an international audience, for the first time in 80 years, on 28th November.”
On 14th October 1888, the New York Times announced the arrival of a large number of Vereshchagin’s paintings in the United States. The works in question, including Crucifixion by the Romans had been sent to New York to be exhibited by the American Art Association and to tour the United States before returning to New York to be auctioned. The exhibition travelled to Chicago, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Boston and was a tremendous success, attended by literally hundreds of thousands of people. The auction commenced sharp at 8.00pm on 17th November 1891.The New York Times reported the following day, ‘The highest price of the evening was achieved by the large painting, one of a series of three that were sold separately, called Crucifixion by the Romans.’ As the final painting in the series referred to by Vereshchagin as ‘An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’, which was devoted to the subject of capital punishment, Crucifixion by the Romans is epic in both scale and content. . By 1899 the work was on view at the Brooklyn Museum, lent by Mr John W. Brown and was presented officially to the museum in 1906 by Mrs Lilla Brown, in memory of her husband.
Of monumental size, this work was painted in Paris in Vereshchagin’s studio which was particularly designed for the execution of over-sized canvasses. The composition is undoubtedly striking: in direct contrast to traditional depictions of the Crucifixion, Vereshchagin positions Christ, illuminated, on the extreme right of the painting, placing the primary emphasis of the composition on the crowd. The viewer becomes part of the crowd, peering over people and horses to view the spectacle. A large expanse of dark sky stretches across the horizontal, the city wall looms heavy over a crowd of traders, Pharisees and a mournful group of Christ’s supporters. In the foreground, Roman soldiers with their spears and lances stand guard. In any study of Vereshchagin’s work written before or after the Russian Revolution, this trilogy of paintings stands as one of the major undertakings of his career. First conceived in 1876, its completion was a dream of the artist’s for over a decade, until the final canvas, the present work, was finished in 1887.
The theme that connects the three works – extremes of capital punishment under three of the greatest territorial empires the world has ever known, the Roman, the British and Vereshchagin’s own, the Russian – is emphasized by the works’ titles: Blowing from Guns in British India and Hanging in Russia. Each work symbolically illustrates the moment of the greatest ethical test each empire had faced, lamenting the brutality of the state while poignantly depicting the unchanging humanity that connects people and populations across vast expanses of time and geographical territory.
In answer to the British and Russian criticism the artist faced for his trilogy – Vereshchagin responded, ‘A hundred years hence they will be appreciated: the pictures will live’. Over a century later, Vereshchagin’s prophesy has been realised, with the appearance of Vereshchagin’s phenomenal masterwork, Crucifixion by the Romans, at auction.
Sale: Christie’s London, 28 November 2011 at 10 am
Viewing: 25, 26, 27 November 2011