Prominent Russians: Ivan Aivazovsky
Ivan Aivazovsky was a famous Russian artist specializing in seascape and landscape portraits. He was born into the family of a destitute Armenian merchant in the Crimean city of Feodosia on 17 July 1817. At the time of Aivazovsky’s birth the city was devastated after a recent war and was still suffering from the consequences of a plague epidemic that had affected the region in 1812.
Aivazovsky’s childhood was spent in poverty on the outskirts of the city facing the beautiful Feodosia Bay and the ruins of an ancient Greek fortress. Young Ivan was mesmerized by the grandeur of the view and the heroic stories told about the Greeks and the famous battles of the past.
His talent was discovered at a very early age. He was taken on as an apprentice by a local architect and later sent to a gymnasium in Simferopol where he showed such amazing artistic skills that influential locals helped him
move to St. Petersburg to enter the Academy of Art. His first success came in 1835 when his sketch “Air Over Sea” received a silver medal in an art competition. It was at this time that Aivazovsky met Mikhail Glinka, Vissarion Belinsky, Ivan Krylov and Vassily Zhukovsky.
In 1836 the French artist Philippe Tanner came to teach at the academy and noticed the promising youth. He was a master of marine paintings and showed Aivazovsky his tricks – in the fall of that same year Ivan put five of his own marine canvases on exhibit. The artist was noticed by the press and critics. The following year he was awarded a gold medal for his works “Still Bay of Finland” and “The Roads Near Kronstadt” and received the official title of artist.
He was trusted by the academy to continue his work on his own and moved back to Crimea where he set up a shop and started painting his beloved Black Sea. He did most of his painting outside, watching the elements, and only going indoors to put the finishing touches on his masterpieces.
In 1839 Aivazovsky took part in a Navy operation off Caucasian shores, meeting prominent admirals of the time and becoming friends with them for life. The raid inspired a series of battle paintings and the artist’s courage in battle earned him much respect in the Navy and a good reputation among the officers. His canvases depicting sea battles are remarkably true to fact and so full of accurate details that they may be considered illustrations of naval attack tactics.
The following year the artist undertook his first trip abroad – by then he was a known seascape master and his fame preceded him in all his travels through Italy, Germany, France, Holland and Spain. In Italy Aivazovsky met Nikolay Gogol and renowned artist Aleksandr Ivanov. Upon his return to Russia Ivan Aivazovsky was given an official title within the General Naval Office which later allowed him to join Russian research and science expeditions to Turkey, Greece, Egypt, America and Asia to bring home even more marine impressions and hundreds of sketches that are reflected in his most famous works of art.
In 1846 Aivazovsky built his own workshop in his native Feodosia and spent most of his time there, behind closed doors, producing one picture after another. He no longer needed to go outdoors for inspiration– he’d already seen so much of his beloved environment that he was able to produce canvases with amazing speed, almost that of a printing machine. By this time the artist has perfected his technique and invented so many tricks that he often astonished his visitors by creating a large canvas in a matter of hours.
Aivazovsky frequently compared his work to that of a poet. “The artist who only copies nature becomes a slave to nature. The motions of live elements are imperceptible to a brush: painting lightning, a gust of wind or the splash of a wave. The artist must memorize them. The plot of the pictures is composed in my memory, like that of a poet; after doing a sketch on a scrap of paper, I start to work and stay by the canvas until I’ve said everything on it with my brush.”
His life in the quiet coastal Feodosia was quite uneventful. He spent days in his workshop mixing paints and producing seascapes and in winters went to St. Petersburg to exhibit his works for the sophisticated public of the Russian capital. Although he lead a secluded life, Aivazovsky kept in constant touch with his great contemporaries, welcomed them at his home in Feodosia and arranged meetings with them in St. Petersburg.
His art was greatly influenced by Romanticism – his battle pictures such as “The Chesmen Battle” (1848), are filled with “the music of war,” the heroic pathos of the sea fight. At first glance this painting gives the impression of a great feast with celebrations and fireworks - only after a closer examination does it become clear that it is a battle in the Black Sea at night, with the Turkish fleet burning and a ship exploding in the dark. Among the scattered pieces of the once formidable Armada, the flagship of the Russian navy, stands a dark shadow and a dinghy with the surviving crew ready to dock after having exploded their fireboat to destroy the enemy.
Aivazovsky’s greatest masterpiece is considered to be “The Ninth Wave,” executed in 1950. An early dawn after a night storm, the first rays of light touch the surface of the raging ocean and the fearsome ninth wave is ready to crush a small group of people struggling for their lives among the wreckage. Although the situation seems desperate, the picture still leaves the viewer with a glimmer of hope – it’s full of light from the rising sun that brings yet another day.
In 1868 Aivazovsky traveled to the Caucasian mountains and painted the reefs with their pearly white snowcaps, like waves of stone. A number of paintings of the southern Caucasus are recognized as masterpieces.
Dostoevsky was an admirer of Aivazovsky’s art and “The Rainbow” was his favorite work. It marked the first time in Russian art that a painter had created a scene of a storm as if seen from inside the raging sea. Dostoevsky wrote, “This storm by Aivazovsky is fabulous, like all of his storm pictures, and here he is the master who has no competition. In his storms there is the trill, the eternal beauty that startles a spectator in a real life storm.”
The last decade of the artist’s life was dedicated to experimentation. For example, Aivazovsky tried his hand at portraits of daily life. Most of his works from this period were unsuccessful, though the hand of a great master clearly shows. His canvas “The Wedding in Ukraine” (1891) depicts a village wedding: the newlyweds, their guests and young musicians are singing and dancing in their bright clothes in the garden in front of a simple peasant hut. It’s hard to believe a marinist painter created this jolly picture.
In 1898 Aivazovsky created “Among the Waves,” the painting that is recognized as the pinnacle of his art. In it a thunderstorm rages above the boiling sea. There is no debris or destroyed ships or any other usual tricks of drama and tension; the waves crushing against one another create an extremely powerful image. It is one of the few canvases the artist never exhibited, bequeathing it instead to his art gallery in Feodosia.
Aivazovsky died on 19 April (2 May) 1900 at the age of 82.
The heritage left behind by Ivan Aivazovsky is huge – over 6000 canvases. But not all of them can be called masterpieces; some are simple copies of the same theme with minor variations, some are quite mediocre, but the masterpieces such as “The Ninth Wave” (1850) or “The Black Sea” (1881) cause viewers to hold their breath at the sight of the endless, enchanting, almighty sea.
Aivazovsky, although a romantic, was also a very practical man. He was among the first artists to personally exhibit his creations in major cities. He enjoyed a generous income and spent much of his wealth on the welfare of his hometown: in 1865 he opened a painting school in Feodosia, and in 1880 an art gallery.