Ivan K. Aivazovsky (1817 - 1900)
Although the name of Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky is unfamiliar in the west, he was one of the most respected painters of the nineteenth century in his native Ukraine and Russia. Born into an Armenian family on 17 July 1817, the young artist grew up in the Black Sea port of Feodosiya, a city founded by Greeks in the 6th century BCE and subsequently controlled by the Republic of Genoa, the Mongols, the Ottoman Turks, and Russia before becoming independent as part of Ukraine. With such a variety of cultural influences, it is not surprising that the community offered an ethnic kaleidoscope in Aivazovsky’s time. His father set an example of international civility, speaking several Middle Eastern languages that facilitated his business as a local merchant. Unfortunately, the economic recession of the 1820s undermined that enterprise, and the young Aivazovsky began working in the local coffee shops to help support the family at an early age.
Despite the poverty of his childhood, Aivazovsky seems to have shown a facility not only for language, much like his father, but also for both music and drawing. According to local legend, he often decorated the walls of the coffee shops where he worked, thus attracting the attention of city leaders. With their backing, Aivazovsky was sent to high school in Simferopol, one of the larger cities in the Crimea. There he showed great promise in art, and in 1833, at age sixteen, he was admitted to the Russian Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg. The Russian Academy, like its French model, offered rigorous classical training based on the study of Greek, Roman and Italian Renaissance traditions. Aivazovsky focused his studies on landscape painting in particular, under the direction of Maxim Nikiforovich Vorobyov who headed the landscape studio at the Academy. Vorobyov encouraged Aivazovsky to explore a range of landscape painting traditions, including the contemporary romantic approach of artists such as J.M.W. Turner.
The year 1836, when Aivazovsky was just nineteen years old, proved to be a turning point in his career. In the spring of the year, he first participated in the training exercises of the Russia Baltic Sea naval fleet. One of his instructors, the battle scene specialist Alexandre Ivanovtich Sauerweid, suggested that the novice artist get some direct experience of Navy in the hope that he would also specialize in painting battle scenes. Sauerweid’s hopes for a successor were not fulfilled, but Aivazovsky’s fascination with marine painting was definitively confirmed by his stint with the Russian fleet.
That same year, Aivazovsky also entered five of his paintings in the annual Academy exhibition. They were very well received, and within a year, in October 1837, he was awarded the First Gold Medal for Calm in the Gulf of Finland and The Great Roads at Kronstadt at the annual exhibition. This meant that he would have financial support to study abroad, with a particular focus on working in Rome. Although the young painter was no doubt exultant about such good fortune, he chose to spend the next two years back in Feodosiya learning to paint the seascapes of his native Crimea. The literature on Aivazovsky generally presents this decision as having been entirely due to a desire to perfect his skills as a marine painter, but it is decidedly at odds with the typical progression of young men who earned the prestigious stipend to study in Rome; it might be pertinent to explore other explanations for his two-year hiatus at his parents’ home. Nonetheless, during this time, Aivazovsky painted extensively throughout the Crimean peninsula and in the port cities on the Black Sea. In addition, he went to sea at least three times with the Russian Navy where he sketched extensively while taking part in the fleet’s training exercises.
In 1840, after a brief return to St. Petersburg, Aivazovsky finally left for Rome where he quickly became part of the arts community in the city. His career as a successful marine painter took shape there as well, with his work frequently included in Italian exhibitions. Although still a young artist, Aivazovsky built an individual style in Rome, based on the romantic seascapes of his previous two years in Feodosiya, but with an increasingly abstract quality. Works such as Chaos, (Anno Mundi) 1841, show a turbulent ocean lit from above by an abstracted, divine presence—an image that echoes traditional depictions of the subject, but with a strongly romantic and modern sensibility. A year later, Aivazovsky’s painting of The Bay of Naples on a Moonlit Night was praised by the 67-year old English master of landscape painting, J. M. W. Turner, who saw it in Rome and even dedicated a poem—in Italian—to the young painter. [i]
During the early 1840s, Aivazovsky traveled extensively throughout Europe, spending time in Spain, Germany, Holland and France as well as the Italian regions outside of Rome. His prolific production, appealing subject matter, and what must have been an engaging personality meant that his work was widely exhibited, and often lauded as exemplary marine painting. His 1843 submission to the Paris Salon won a gold medal; and in 1857, he would be awarded the French Legion of Honor. In 1844, he organized an exhibition of his own work in Amsterdam, further establishing his reputation as a successful entrepreneur as well as a respected painter. By all accounts, the Amsterdam exhibition was a major triumph.
What distinguished Aivazovsky’s paintings were not only his flawless technique, but also his compelling emotional depictions of scenes from nature. His method was based on his ability to sketch quickly—and frequently—in pencil, and then create his final paintings through his memory of the scenes. He reportedly explained his method as follows: “The movement of the elements cannot be directly captured by the brush—it is impossible to paint lightning, a gust of wind, or the splash of a wave, direct from nature. For that, the artist must remember them.” [ii] His many views of Venice and the Bay of Naples from the mid-1840s testify to this romantic sensibility with an emphasis on intense luminosity and evocations of mood.
By the middle of the 1840s, Aivazovsky returned to St. Petersburg where he received the title of “Academician” in acknowledgement of his official acceptance into the Russian Academy of Arts. Simultaneously, he was appointed as the “Painter to the Staff of the Naval Ministry,” a position that allowed him to sail with the Russian fleet, documenting their activities, but also creating the marine paintings that would ultimately bring him fame and fortune in his native land. For the rest of his life, Aivazovsky traveled widely—and often—throughout the world. In 1845, he sailed the Black Sea, the eastern Mediterranean, and the Greek Islands. In 1868, he traveled through the Caucasus; and in 1869, he was invited to the grand opening of the Suez Canal in Egypt, thus becoming the first artist to paint that modern engineering accomplishment. In 1884, he traveled down the Volga River; and in 1892, at seventy-five years old, he journeyed to the United States where he made a point of visiting Niagara Falls as well as Washington, D. C. and New York, NY. In between these major journeys, Aivazovsky regularly traveled to Italy, Paris, St. Petersburg and Moscow.
Despite the frequent traveling, Feodosiya remained home to Aivazovsky. He returned there permanently in 1846, building the house and a studio that would be his home for the rest of his life. That same year, the city honored him with an exhibition of his paintings; the following year, in 1847, he was promoted to the rank of professor at the Russian Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg; and in 1848, he had his first exhibition in Moscow.
This productive and relatively calm life was interrupted by the imperial machinations of Russia, the Ottoman Empire, France and Britain in the 1850s. The complex political ambitions and relationships of these nations ultimately resulted in the Crimean War in 1853-56, with fighting throughout the Black Sea, and specifically on the Crimean peninsula where Aivazovsky lived. Soviet-era publications on the artist barely acknowledge the existence of the Crimean War or of the artist’s possible involvement in the hostilities. However, it seems unlikely that anyone living on the Crimean peninsula during these years could have been unaffected by the presence of foreign military forces in the region. In addition, Aivazovsky painted at least two canvases documenting the 1853 naval battle of Sinop, another port city on the Black Sea, where the Russian Navy won a decisive victory over the Ottoman Turks; in fact, it was this military action that provided Great Britain and France with a rationale to openly declare war against Russia.
Aivazovsky’s close relationship with the Russian Navy, and his frequent participation in naval maneuvers, prompts the question of whether or not he witnessed the battle that he painted. The two versions of the painting depict the beginning and ending of the battle, showing Russian and Turkish ships in roughly the same positions in both compositions, but with one brightly lit by the morning sun, and the second a study in red and black as flames illuminate the sea under a smoke-filled night sky. Shortly after the victory at Sinop, Aivazovsky’s battle paintings were exhibited in Sevastopol, then under siege by the British and French forces.
In the decade following the end of the Crimean War, Aivazovsky turned inland for his subject matter, painting images of the Ukrainian countryside he so often observed on his journeys between Feodosiya and St. Petersburg. The vast open plains offered the artist an opportunity to explore the aesthetic of Realism that was beginning to emerge in Russian art circles. It is important to note too that Aivazovsky was in Paris in 1857 when the Realist work of Gustave Courbet was attracting much attention and controversy. Although Aivazovsky will never be considered a Realist, his work became increasingly realistic over time. In canvases such as The Aul of Gunib in Daghestan, View from the East, (1869), or The Volga Near the Zhiguli Hills (1887), he documents the ordinary life of local tribesmen and river pilots. In fact, the Volga River series bears a remarkable similarity in spirit to George Caleb Bingham’s paintings of life on the Mississippi River, including the presence of the smoke-belching steamboats.
Back home in Feodosiya, Aivazovsky was a leader in his community. He had opened at art school in his own studio in 1865, and six years later, built the Feodosiya Historical and Archaeological Museum. He also provided water for the town from his own estate, and helped to establish the first commercial port facilities at the harbor. Today, the Aivazovsky Art Gallery remains a central attraction in the city.
Aivazovsky’s energy and appetite for new sights and experiences seems to have been boundless. At age sixty-two, he went to Genoa, Italy to collect material for a project on Columbus’s discovery of America. At sixty-seven, he traveled down the Volga River; and at seventy-five, he crossed the Atlantic to visit Washington, D.C., New York City, and Niagara Falls. His 1893 painting of Niagara Falls captures both the power of the falls and the scope of the setting, no small accomplishment when faced with such a mammoth natural phenomena. The definitive work of Aivazovsky’s late career, however, is Amidst the Waves, (1898), a very large, abstract canvas that positions the viewer within the sea itself. It is a depiction of pure experience, without any mediating religious, sentimental or historical context—in short, a very modern work.
Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky died on 19 April 1900 in Feodosiya, just three months shy of his eighty-third birthday.
Janet Whitmore, Ph.D.
Aivazovsky Art Gallery, Feodosiya, Ukraine
Central Naval Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia
Cottage Palace Museum, Peterhof, Russia
Picture Gallery, Theodosia, Ukraine
Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Museum of Russian Art, Kiev, Ukraine
Muzeum Sztuki, Lodz, Poland
National Gallery of Armenia, Yerevan, Armenia
Odessa Art Musem, Odessa, Ukraine
Pavlovsk Palace Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia
Philadelphia Museum of Art, Phildadelphia
Sakip Sabanci Museum, Istanbul
Kunsthalle zu Kiel, Kiel, Germany
Taganrog Art Gallery, Taganrog, Russia
Treyakov Gallery, Moscow
Tula Art Museum, Tula, Russia
[i] Nikolai Novouspensky, Aivazovsky, translated by Richard Ware, (Leningrad [St. Petersburg]: Aurora Art Publishers, 1980), 8.
[ii] Nikolai Novouspensky, Aivazovsky, translated by Richard Ware, (Leningrad: [St. Petersburg] Aurora Art Publishers, 1980), 10.