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The Egyptian campaign of Napoleon

The first great campaign of Napoleon as commander and general, was his expedition to Egypt. Although the French were not able to consolidate a stronghold and had to surrender to the British forces in 1801, Napoleon proved his skills in public relations and managed to create an image of himself of the victorious general who set foot on the Orient. Although the military significance was not that important, the cultural significance was enourmous. Artists and scientists started an era of orientalism.

One of the first battles of the campaign was the battle of the pyramids. After landing at Alexandria on 1 July 1798, Napoleon had to fight the Mamluks who reigned Egypt. The battle was fought on 20 July with the Mamluks having a cavalry based medieval army with infantry consisting of peasants weaponed with spears and clubs, and the French having gunpower with muskets and artillery. While defending in square position against the massive cavalry charges, the brave Mamluk cavalry was shot to pieces.  While French losses only amounted to 30 soldiers, the death toll of the Egyptian forces was several thousands. Although the pyramids were barely visible from the battlegrounds, Napoleon realised the symbolic meaning and named this battle after the pyramids. Gros depicted this battle with Napoleon in a classic victorious pose. General Lejeune, soldier and painter himself (for more soldier-artists see the guided tour artists-at-war), gave a more realistic portrait of the battle in which the orderly square position of the French troops strongly contrasts with the chaotically dispersed Mamluk cavalry.

Baron_Antoine-Jean_Gros-Battle_Pyramids_1810 Antoine Jean Gros, Battle of the pyramids, 1810


lejeune-pyramids Louis François Lejeune, The Battle of the Pyramids, 1806

After this victory, Cairo capitulated and Napoleon and his staff made his quarters in the capital. However, the victorious feelings dissapeared after a week. Napoleon lost his whole fleet in the bay of Aboukir.  When admiral Nelson of the British navy located the French fleet, he did not hesitate and made a swift attack which completely destroyed the French ships including important cargo. Among the lost items were gas producing machines vital for the newly formed hot-air balloon corps (aerostier corps). Due to this misfortune, the aerostier corps with bright blue fresh designed uniforms had to be dismantled and could not prove its aerial battlefield observation powers as it had done a few years before during the battle of Fleuris. The battle of the Nile was glorified by British painters but of course not by contemporary French painters.

Battle-of-the-nile-george-arnaldGeorge Arnald, The Destruction of “L’Orient” at the Battle of the Nile, 1827


Isolated from his homeland, Napoleon had no choice to further consolidate and expand his positions in Egypt.  In Cairo he tried to befriend the local sheiks and government officials (ulama) forming a council. This could however not prevent the growing anti-French sentiments because the use of alcohol and unveiling of woman was introduced to a muslim community. Ultimately this led to a revolt in which the ‘infidels’ were to be slaughtered. Napoleon drove the insurgents back to the main mosque of Caïro using his artillery. One of the first French to enter the mosque after the fierce bombardment, was general Dumas, father of Alexandre Dumas. Swinging his saber, the arabs fleed shouting “the angel, the angel”.

vers79_girodet_cairo-revoltThe revolt of Cairo, 1810, Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson

The French forces killed thousands of Egyptians and to restore order, Napoleon executed some surviving insurgents with public beheadings. French losses of 300 soldiers still were minimal compared to the Egyptian losses. While secretly the remaining prisoners in Cairo were beheaded and thrown in the river at night, Napoleon granted pardon to local sheiks and imans of the El Azhar mosque speaking the words : “I know that many of you have been weak, but I like to believe that none of you is guilty”.

guerinPierre-Narcisse Guerin, Napoleon Bonaparte Pardoning the Rebels at Cairo, 1806-1808

After that Napoleon accompagnied his scientific team to explore the treasues of Egypt. The pyramids and the sfinx had to be studied. In contrast with the painting of Gerome, the sfinx was still buried to his chin in the desert sand. Also the red sea had to be crossed in which Napoleon almost shared the fate of the biblical pharao when the tide rose faster then expected on his returntrip.  Despite all the important scientific work that was done by his scientists with the discovery of the Rosetta stone as a major contribution to egyptology, they made one big mistake in estimating the feasability of constructing the Suez canal. The team assumed a (non-existant) height difference between the red sea and the mediterranean water level which would endanger the Egyptian delta with flooding in case of a direct connection.

Bonaparte_Before_the_Sphinx, Jean Leon GeromeJean Leon Gerome, Bonaparte devant le Sphinx, 1867

Bonaparte_aux_pyramides_OrangeMaurice Orange, Bonaparte aux Pyramides, created between 1885-1916

Already at the start of his Egyptian adventure, Napoleon discovered the strenght of the dromedary as a transportation tool. Riding a dromedary did cause some nausea but did not prohibit Napoleon of using a dromedary himself. The dromedary used by Napoleon was transported to the Paris zoo and after his demise embalmed in the African museum. In January 1799, Napoleon instituted the dromedary regiment formed of 4 squadrons of 100 man each.  The regiment were considered mounted infantry, not cavalry, and fought dismounted.

dromedaire-detailleEdouard Detaille, Soldat du régiment des Dromadaires, 1885

Bonaparte et son armee en egypte, jean leon GeromeJean-Leon Gerome,  Napoleon and His General Staff, 1867

drom Napoleons embalmed dromedary, African Museum, Island of Aix, France

When Napoleon was confronted with the declaration of a jihad by the Ottoman rulers, he decided to make a pre-emptive strike to the landbased army approaching from Damascus by invading Palestine with half of his troops while the other half stayed as a defensive force in Cairo. Meanwhile a second Turkish army was formed on Cyprus to be transported to Egypt by British vessels. The Syrian campaign proved to be disastrous in terms of French casualties. Almost one third of his army perished, most of them due to disease and the harsh desert conditions. Although Napoleon failed to conquer Accre and was attacked by his own seized artillery, he did defeat the large Ottoman army from Damascus in the battle of mount Tabor which was preceded by the smaller battle of Nazareth fought by general Junot.

Antoine-Jean_Gros_010Antoine Jean Gros, Battle of Nazareth, 1802

On his retreat to Cairo, Napoleon had difficulties with transporting his sick soldiers. Among dysentery and eye problems, there was also an outbreak of bubonic plague. This caused a fear among the troops which Napoleon succeeded to calm down by bravely visiting a plague hospital in Jaffa and touching with his bare hands a plague victim. Gros masterly depicted this scene in his famous painting in which Napoleon has messianic features.

napoleon_in_the_plague_house_at_jaffaAntoine Jean Gros, Bonaparte Visiting the Plague Victims of Jaffa,1804

When Napoleon finally returned to Cairo, his exhausted surviving soldiers were put into new uniforms and boots for the triumphant entry in the city. Napoleon was welcomed by the sheiks and was given two personal mamluk servants as a present. One of them, Roustam, stayed Napoleons personal servant for most of his career and was painted by Vernet.

Roustam_-_Vernet (1)Horace Vernet, Portrait of Roustam Raza, the mamluck of Napoleon, 1810

Napoleon had returned in time to oppose the second Ottoman army which landed on Aboukir bay transported by the British fleet. When making a stronghold on the bay, marshall Murat leaded a massive attack and wiped away the Ottoman army. The painting of Gros is despite its grandeur and academic composition, close to the truth in depicting the fight between Murat and Mustafa, the Turkish commander. Murat chopped of two fingers of Mustafa and in return was shot in the jaw by Mustafa.

Antoine-Jean_Gros_-_Bataille_d'Aboukir,_25_juillet_1799_-_Google_Art_ProjectAntoine Jean Gros, Battle of Aboukir, 1807

Within one month of this battle, Napoleon left his army to return to France. He gave the command to general Kleber and embarked a vessel to Frejus. He sent a letter to the French Directory proclaiming his victory at Aboukir and was greeted by the people with enthousiasm. His army was less enthousiastic and had to surrender to the British-Ottoman coaliton in 1801 also to be embarked on ships and returning to France. An adventure was over, but a lasting impression was made to the world.


Artists at war (1870-1871)

Not only did artists paint war, they also participated as soldiers. In this post I will focus on French artists during the siege of Paris in the Franco-German war of 1870/1871. This war became a turning point in 19th century european history with the end of the Napoleonic era and French supremacy and the start of the German empire.

In the beginning of the war, there were quite a lot of artists who decided to fled the city or even the country. Lawrence Alma-Tadema, who was staying in Paris at that time, took the boat to London. He was followed by Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro. Paul Cezanne went to the far south of France,

When most of the French army was defeated and Napoleon III captured in the battle of Sedan on 2 september 1870, the German army could quickly advance to Paris were the city was surrounded on 19 september. The following 4 months were characterized by strong resistance and determination of the Paris defence forces and the citizens of Paris. The dividing line between soldier and citizen however was fluid : a lot of volunteer brigades were formed.


Le Monde Illustre, 5 novembre 1870

Among them were the “tirailleurs de la Seine” (sharpshooters of the Seine).This 115 man company was financed with 10.000 francs (~100.000 US$) by the merchant Constant-Leon Sauvage de la Martiniere and commanded by captain Dumas. There were a lot of artists in this company among which the painters Jules Frédéric Ballavoine , Etienne Prosper Berne-Bellecour, Gustave Jacquet, Alexandre-Louis Leloir , Eugène Leroux , James Tissot, and Jehan Georges Vibert.



Les Éclaireurs de la Seine, James Tissot, Graphite and watercolor on paper
c. 1870-71

The correspondent of Le Monde Illustre (november 5,1870) wrote : “In this company were recruited some talented lawyers, artists who had proven themselves , all young men with a bright future who, when the Prussians advanced, dit not hesitate  to exchange criminal records, brush and chisel against a chassepot or rifle”. This so called chassepot was the new French army rifle (1866) which was an improvement of the Prussian rifle with a considerably longer firing range (1200 meter vs 600 meter).

In the meantime the French army outside Paris tried to organize and advance to Paris. Auguste Renoir joined a cavalry unit and was sent to Bordeaux but never made contact with the enemy. A friend of Edouard Manet, Frederic Bazille was less fortunate. Het participated in an attack near Paris and was killed.


The Tirailleurs de la Seine at the Battle of Rueil-Malmaison, 21st October 1870, 1875
Berne-Bellecour, Etienne Prosper

The most famous battle of the tirailleurs de Seine in which 64 members of the company participated was the battle of Buzenval in october 21 1870 (as opposed to the second battle of Buzenval in 1871). Etienne Prosper Berne-Bellecour, member of the company, made a painting of the battle. The French troops tried to conquer the grounds around Malmaison including the castle of Buzenval. They took the castle but had to retreat when the Germans mobilized more troops. Heavy fighting took place at the so called Longboyau gate of the Buzenval castle.



Défense de la porte de Longboyau, au château de Buzenval, le 21 octobre 1870, Alphonse de Neuville

At the end of the battle the company had, according to the records of general Ducrot, lost 5 men and had 12 men wounded.  James Tissot witnessed the death of one of his comrades, the sculptor Cuvelier. He made a sketch of it later which was not appreciated by Edgar Degas, a close friend of Cuvelier. Other victims of this battle were Eugene Leroux who was seriously wounded at both legs and could not move despite help of his friend Gustave Jaquet and Jehan Georges Vibert who suffered a slight knee wound. For this Vibert was awarded the Légion d’Honneur and even became an Officier of the Légion d’Honneur in 1882.


first kill

The death of Cuvelier, sketched by Tissot, Le premier homme tué que j’ai vu (Souvenir du siège de Paris), 1870

As the bitter winter passed in the besieged and isolated Paris (although some balloonflights were performed), and food became so scarce that rats and the zoo-elephants  were on the christmas menu of the restaurants, one of the last battles of the war was fought. On January 19, the day after Wilhelm I was proclaimed German Emperor in Versailles, the French did an outbreak in the direction of Versailles and again Buzenval castle was the decor of heavy fighting. This time another painter, Henri Regnault, was fatally wounded.

His death was immortalized by his friend Ernest Meissonier in his allegoric painting “the siege of Paris”, in which Regnault is depicted in the center, falling on his knees and leaning toward the woman with the lion-cape (Mme Meissonier). Although Regnault was exempted from military duty on account of his Prix de Rome award, he joined the National Guard.and he prepared for death in combat by attaching to his clothing a card with his name and contact details of his fiancee. Another artistic friend of him, composer Camille Saint-Saëns who also served in the National Guard, paid tribute to his death with  his Marche héroïque (1871).

giraud_victor_julien-portrait_d_henri_regnault_~OM5d8300~10639_20121026_9754_162 portrait2


Le Siege de Paris (1870-1871), Ernest Meissonier
Oil on canvas, ca 1884

Although the “tirailleurs de la Seine” had the largest amount of artists enlisted, they were certainly not the only unit to have artists in their midst. Theophile Poilpot became a member of the mobile Seine unit and his friend Gustave Boulanger joined the National Guard.


to the left Theophile Poilpot, sergeant of the 1th regiment mobile Seine Unit and to the right Gustave Boulanger in a national guard uniform

Other members of the National Guard were Edgar Degas, Edouard Manet and William Adolphe Bouguereau. Edgar Degas discovered with rifle training that his eyesight was not good enough to become an infantry-soldier and hence joined the artillery. His eye problems turned later out to become progressive and influence his style and subjects. Degas did not experience the battlefield like the tirailleurs de Seine as appears from this quote of a letter “Monsieur Degas has joined the artillery, and by his own account has not yet heard a cannon go off.  He is looking for an opportunity to hear that sound because he wants to know whether he can endure the detonation of his guns.”

Édouard Manet was also a gunner in the artillery of the National Guard, together with Degas.  He became a lieutenant.  At the start, he was on maneuvers with Degas for two hours a day in ankle-deep mud. He found this too demanding and was transferred to the general staff headquarters where he joined Ernest Meissonier among others. At the headquarters, Manet said, he could “be safe while being able to see everything.”

Bougereau was having a vacation in Brittany when the war started. He left his wife and three children in safety and returned to Paris alone . Although exempt from military duty on account of his age, he joined the National Guard, where he served as a simple soldier, standing guard on the fortifications.

The great military painter Edouard Detaille, also participated in the Franco-Prussian war and made a famous painting about a sleeping regiment of young recruits who are dreaming about a victorious revenge on the Germans. This painting became an inspiration for the new French generation and popular with the youth, as illustrated by Paul Legrand in 1897. The seeds were sowed for a war to come …


dream_detailleLe Reve, Edouard Detaille, 1888



Devant “le reve” de Detaille, Paul Legrand, 1897




The 19th century was the age of the horror story. A lot of today’s famous icons which were depicted in the cinema in the 20th century, were born in the 19th century such as Frankenstein (1818), Edgar Allen Poe’s stories, Dr Jekyll and Hyde (1886) and Dracula (1897).

The literary genre consisted of the so called gothic novel. The stories were often located in medieval buildings (hence the name “gothic”) or ruins. These surroundings formed a romantic stage for the storytelling and this exact feeling was depicted by various painters also.


Monastery_Graveyard_in_the_Snow, Caspar David Friedrich

Caspar David Friedrich, Monastery Graveyard in the snow, 1817 (black and white photograph, original destroyed in world war II)

Another German master of spooky ruins was Carl Blechen, Although the sleeping figure and the friendly sunlight do add some serenity to the picture, it is not hard to imagine what this dramatic building would turn to during a dark night.



Carl Blechen, ruins of a gothic church, 1826

Apart from the gothic buildings, the horror genre also used the sometimes twisted minds of people. The view on mental illness was quite different than today. Mental institutions were even used as a zoolike experience in which the public could take a sunday afternoon walk. The following picture illustrates the London Bethlem Hospital, one of the first mental hospitals in Europe.



William Hogarth, a Rake’s progress : the rake in Bedlam, 1735

But the line between health and disease is thin. In extreme conditions, ordinary people transform to monsterlike creatures. A famous example is the French Gericault who painted the gruesome wreckage of the vessel “Medusa”. The initial 147 survivors had to sustain an ordeal of starvation, dehydration and cannibalism in which ultimately just 15 people survived.


Theodore Gericault, The raft of the Medusa, 1818

Another romantic painter who did like the more dark side of life was the Belgian Antoine Wiertz. This quite unknown painter did succeed in winning the highly prestigious prix de Rome in 1832. His museum in Brussels at the rue Wiertz is free to attend and neighbour to the European Parlement.


Antoine Wiertz, Hunger, Madness and the crime, 1857

The final work in this guided tour is also from Wiertz and depicts the fear to be buried alive by mistake. This theme was quite popular in the 19th century (Edgar Allen Poe wrote a story about it in 1844). Special designed burial equipment was invented (safety coffins with airtubing and alarm systems with bells) and in some countries (including the Netherlands) legislation was made to postpone the burial several days and to observe the corpse in special morgues. In this painting of Wiertz, a victim of a cholera epidemic is depicted. On the coffin is a mark : certified death by our doctors. Before the invention of the stethoscope, the declaration of death could be tricky especially if the patient had a weak pulse and a shallow respiration. Therefore the painted scenario maybe not too far from reality, especially in epidemics with mass casualties.


Antoine Wiertz, the premature burial, 1854


The 19th century was a period of social and economic change and a century of industrialisation. Compared to our current standards of social welfare, there was bitter poverty for many people and the society was harsh regarding help. The common idea was that people were responsible for the circumstances they lived in and that poor people were lazy people who did not put enough effort to improve their situation.


Jules Bastien Lepage,The Beggar

Of course there were exeptions and if someone had a handicap and especially a child, people tended to be more merciful.



Jules Bastien Lepage, The Blind Beggar

These depictions of poor children were also used by social realists like Augustus Edwin Mulready. They match perfectly with the stories of Charles Dickens. In the painting below the sharp contrast is illustrated between the well fed and clothed children of the upper class versus the homeless street children in which the meaning of true christianity is challenged.



Augustus Edwin Mulready, Uncared for, 1871



Vasily Vereschagin, chorus of dervishes begging in tashkent,1870

Poverty and begging is of all times and of all places. Different cultures result in different expressions of begging. In Central Asia beggars formed collectives who originally started as religious orders were poverty was a way of living. They chanted hymns and one of those melodies survived to the present day because of Beethoven who found an old transcription and transformed it in his Chorus of Dervishes opus 113 which includes his Turkish March (not to be confused with the Turkish March of Mozart).


Vasiliy Vereschagin, Japanese beggar, 1904

In Japan, Vereschagin met a special mendicant order of the Fuke school of Zen Buddishm  : the Komuso monks. They had a typical appearance with their heads completely covered by straw hats and playing a bamboo flute to collect alms. These were mostly old samurai warriors who’s master had died and who chose not to perform suicide (which was the code of honour). Masterless samurai were called ronin and often chose to become komuso monks which granted them the possibility of free travel. It is said that their flutes were slighly bigger than flutes were supposed to be, so that they could double as a weapon.

Begging however was not the first choice for poor people, throughout history people have done hard labour to earn just a few coins to feed their children. One of this jobs was pulling ships by a rope, the so called barge hauling.


Vasily Vereshchagin, study for barge hauler

The most famous painting about barge hauling is from Ilya Repin.


Ilya Repin, barge haulers on the wolga, 1872

The sharp distinction between the rich merchandisers and the producing working class was painfully illustrated by the German Hubner in his scene of the Silesean weavers in which the manufacturer is rejecting a piece of linen cloth, thereby ruining the poor woman who made this piece and therefore faints. The whole situation ended in a revolt which was the first major strike in Germany and the beginning of labour unions.


Hubner-Silesian Weavers (1844)

Carl Wilhelm Hubner, The Silesean weavers, 1846

We will end this guided tour by a meeting of two poor cleaning servants, a chimney sweep and a maid. Although both performing cleaning duties, the two should better not meet indoors, a theme that was explored by the Dutch Haaxman and the Russian Zhuravlev.



Pieter Alardus Haaxman, Chimney sweeper and the maid,1876



 Firs Zhuravlev, Chimney sweep

Traveller-Artists part 2

To complete the tour of travelller-artists I will finish with the Russian Vasily Vereschagin (also spelled Vereshchagin). His ouevre is so immense that we will need another chapter, just for this painter. He was educated as a marine cadet in St Petersburg where he learned to speak english, french and german. Although he excelled in his school and was admitted to the naval academy, he chose to explore his painting capabilities. But as an artist, he stayed true to his military origins. He painted many war scenes and also engaged in battles on occasion.

Vereschagin loved his own country and chose to depict rural scenes and poor people living their lives, whether in the wooden churches of the northern regions or in more urban areas


Vasily Vereschagin, before the confession at the entrance to a village church,1888


the-porch-of-the-church-of-john-the-baptist-in-tolchkovo-yaroslavl-1888 (1)

Vasily Vereschagin, the porch of the church of john the baptist in tolchkovo yaroslavl,1888

One of his first official duties as a battle painter, was to travel with the Russian troops in Turkestan. The borders of the Russian empire further stretched out to the south. But it was not just painting sketches, Vereschagin actually joined the troops to fight the enemy if the situation got tense. A small russian legion stayed in Samarkand when they were confronted with a massive enemy assault. This scene was depicted in the following painting were the russian defenders prepare for the invasion. Vereschagin got an official medal (order of St Georges) for his part in the battle of Samarkand.


Vasily Vereschagin, at the fortress walls let them enter,1871

Vereschagin was a real realist painter however. Instead of gloryfing the battle and maklng heroic canvases, his paintings showed the naked truth.


Vasily Vereschagin, russian camp in turkestan

Vereschagin realised that war was in itself insane and showed the other side of the battle. That the enemy was reduced to evil and dehumanized.


Vasily Vereschagin, after failure,1868

Other examples of his depiction of the atrocities of was is the painting of the battle of Shipka. Instead of the cheering troops Vereschagin places the dead soldiers in front of the painting and the general on the background.


 Vasily Vereschagin, Skobelev in the battle of Shipka, 1883

But Vereschagin was not done with just travelling through central Asia. He wanted to escape the steppes and deserts and to visit India with its bright colours and splendid architecture.



Vasily Vereschagin, Taj Mahal Mausoleum,1876


Vasily Vereschagin, fakir, 1876

During his two trips to India, Vereschagin visited the Himalaya mountain range. He was a plein air painter par excellence and took his easel to great heights. He started from the base station in Darjeeling in january which is in the middle of the winterseason with high avalanche risk and heavy snowfall. He wanted to approach the Kangchenjunga mountain massif which was regarded the highest mountain in the world till 1851. For that he aimed to climb the Dzongri peak (almost 14000 feet). It almost killed him and his wife. At the end the managed to arrive at a shepherds hut and had to be supported by two coolies to make sketches. His wife describes : “His face is so frightfully swollen,” she tells us, “that his eyes look merely like two wrinkles, the sun scorches his head, his hand can scarcely hold the palette, and yet he insists on finishing his sketches”. The following two paintings are from that breathtaking experience.

kanchenjunga _vereshchagin

Vasily Vereschagin, Kangchenjunga, Pandit and other mountains in the clouds. Circa 1875.

mount pandim

Vasily Vereschagin, Mt Pandit, 1875

Vereschagin continued his journey by visiting the magical kingdom of Sikkim. The white snowy mountains were regarded as holy mountains by the buddhist religion. He managed to witness religious ceremonies which were hidden from european eyes for centuries in which the lama was wearing colored robes and a mask.

buddhist-lama-in-a-monastery-on-a-holiday-pemionchi-sikkim-1875 (1)

Vasily Vereschagin, buddhist lama in a monastery on a holida pemionchi sikkim,1875 


Vasily Vereschagin, monastery in a rock ladakh,1875

Another fascination of Vereschagin was the holy land. But his approach was again different than many others. He carefully studied the people and the surroundings and tried to reconstruct plausible biblical subjects. Some of this paintings were much criticised and two were even destroyed by fanatics so that we only have black and white reproductions of the originals. The following painting is one of the destroyed paintings called “Resurrection” and is depicting the moment that Jezus exited his grave. Vereschagin observed that all the graves were narrow, horizontal crypts and hence he painted a crawling Jezus instead of a glorious hero who is firmly standing on both feet.


Vasily Vereschagin, Resurrection

Later on Vereschagin stayed a while in his own country Russia to make a series of Napoleons campaign in Russia. But his restlessness was stronger than the comfort of his home. He made a tour to the Philippines and also visited Cuba to study the hills were the current president of the USA Theodore Roosevelt had commanded his rough riders to victory.


 Vasily Vereschagin,  “Charge Up San Juan Hill” , 1900

His last years he spended in Japan, another fascinating world. He made a few great portraits and visited temples and shrines.

temple japan

Vasily Vereschagin, temple of Tokyo, 1904

But duty called again as the first Russo-Japanese started. The empires of Russia and Japan collided and a naval battle was fought at Port Arthur in Manchuria (present China). Vereschagin was welcomed on board of the naval flagship “Petropavlovsk”. The ship struck two Japanese mines and sunk fast. Vereschagin continued painting the sea battle while the ship sunk and drowned with the majority of the crew.