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Vereshchagin Chagrin: Russian Realist the New Deaccession Sensation

First Boston. Now Brooklyn.

Russian artist Vasily Vereshchagin, described by Sotheby’s as “unquestionably the most famous of all Russian painters during his lifetime [1842-1904]” (but relatively obscure during ours), has the dubious distinction of being a deaccession superstar this fall in what is fast becoming the Season of the Museum Disposals (benefiting the Clyfford Still Museum, Boston Museum of Fine Arts and Israel Museum, to name three).

Boston’s monumental Vereshchagin, Pearl Mosque, Delhi, late 1880s, will be the highlight of Sotheby’s Russian art auction in New York on Nov. 1.

Hopping onto the Vereshchagin bandwagon, the Brooklyn Museum has just announced that it will auction another monumental work, one of its three paintings by that artist, at Christie’s, London, on Nov. 28:

From Brooklyn Block to Auction Block: “A Crucifixion in the Time of the Romans,” 1887
Presale estimate: £1-1.5
million ($1.55-2.33 million)

In his post on the Brooklyn Museum’s blog, Refining the Russian Collection, Richard Aste, who in spring 2010 became curator of European art, provided a candid explanation of his deaccession decision:

“Crucifixion by the Romans” is a wonderful 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—here of capital punishment under the Roman Empire—that wowed period audiences across Europe and America. Today the painting continues to impress the viewer 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. (The Museum owns two iconic Critical Realist paintings by Vereshchagin of the Russo-Turkish War, “A Resting Place of Prisoners” and “The Road of the War Prisoners,” both now on view in Russian Modern [my link, not theirs—a 13-painting Brooklyn installation].)

“Crucifixion by the Romans” is a powerful expression of Vereshchagin’s foray into Orientalism, and 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:

“A Resting Place of Prisoners,” 1878-1879

“The Road of the War Prisoners,” 1878-1879

Why wouldn’t Brooklyn want to hold onto (and maybe sometimes display) a different, more dynamic example by the artist? Aren’t museums supposed to collect in depth? Might not a future curator rue this deaccession decision, as Brooklyn may now regret an earlier curator’s disposal of a Frans Hals, “The Fisher Girl,” which at this writing is being proudly displayed (scroll down), on loan, at the Metropolitan Museum? Met curator Walter Liedtke recently told me that his institution would enthusiastically welcome Brooklyn’s Dutch castaway into its permanent collection, should its current owner decide part with it.

Pop Quiz for Brooklyn. Complete this sentence:

Those who ignore history…


“The Fisher Girl,” ca. 1630-32, private collection (ex-Brooklyn Museum), photographed in the exhibition Frans Hals in the Metropolitan Museum

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