Vereshchagin was born at Cherepovets, Novgorod Governorate, Russia, in 1842 as the middle of three brothers. His father was a landowner of noble birth, while his mother had Tatar origins. When he was eight years old, he was sent to Tsarskoe Selo to enter the Alexander Cadet Corps. Three years later, he entered the Sea Cadet Corps at St Petersburg, making his first voyage in 1858. He served on the frigate Kamchatka, which sailed to Denmark, France and Egypt.
Vereshchagin graduated first in his list at the naval school, but left the service immediately to begin the study of drawing in earnest. Two years later, in 1863, he won a medal from the St Petersburg Academy for his Ulysses Slaying the Suitors. In 1864, he proceeded to Paris, where he studied under Jean-Léon Gérôme, though he dissented widely from his masters methods.