Our Notes & References
An important and very unusual watercolour: the portrait of one of the most famous Caucasian leaders against Russia, drawn from life three months before his death, with a close connection to one of the most famous plates of Gagarin’s Caucase Pittoresque. Indeed the ink inscription reads: “chez le Prince Gregoire Gagar[ine] / Hadji Mourad généralissime des armées de Chamyl / à Tiflis le 30 Janvier 1852 / dessiné d’après nature… [illegible signature]”.
The portrait is a full length depiction of a seated man wearing a heavy brown cherkeska coat, a long sword and a dagger hang down from his hip, on his head is a papakha woollen hat. Across his breast are the characteristic gazyrs, holding bullets or charge for a firearm.
The pose is a near perfect match to that in which Hadji Murat is depicted by Prince Gagarine in plate LXVI of his monumental visual record of the region, Le Caucase Pittoresque. Though clearly in a less accomplished hand, there is also just a very slight perspective shift, as if this sketch was made just a step or two to the right of Gagarine’s viewpoint. This, added to the inscription, places the image tangibly within the Prince’s immediate circle of companions for this significant meeting with the famed Dagestani freedom fighter.
By 1852 Murat was both a captive and a legend in the ongoing territorial campaigns of the Caucasian wars. Ethnically of the Avar tribe, he had achieved notoriety in his various rebel allegiances, most significantly with Imam Shamil, unifying many mountain tribes against Russian imperialism. His relationship with Shamil was not stable however, and once internal struggles of succession from within Shamil’s camp made it no longer safe for Murat to remain, he defected to the Russian forces under the captaincy of General Vorontsov. Expecting to be immediately armed and dispatched against his former ally, Murat was rather held captive at Tbilisi, considered a trophy of the Russian campaign. Mere months after this portrait was painted, on May 5th 1852, Murat would be killed whilst attempting an escape.
The romance of this captive warrior did not elude Prince Gagarine. In the textual accompaniment to his engraving for Caucase Pittoresque he describes Murat as: “sombre, pensif, recherchant la solitude, se reprochant de vivre sous l’égide des Giaours”. This image of the brooding and subdued rebel would certainly inform the literary depictions of Murat which would propel him to such fame at the turn of the twentieth century. The caged animal of Tolstoi and Mordovcev’s novels comes to embody all resistance to Russian imperialism, making this intimate field sketch of the man behind the myth all the more important.
Gagarine was not innocent of embellishment however, and the present work highlights this when compared to the lithographed plate. Gagarin placed Murat on a mountainside overlooking the town of Ghmiri, a settlement in Dagestan near the coast of the Caspian Sea. The inscription to our sketch however indicates that the drawing was made miles away, at Tbilisi, showing that Gagarine’s decision to situate the subject in his mountain environs rather than his more metropolitan site of incarceration is one deliberately imbued with meaning. The desire to show Hadji Murat as a wild rebel rather than a gunless captive plays again into his construction as a revered and untameable figure.