The Appearance of Christ to the People by Alexander Ivanov

The Appearance of Christ before the People by Alexander Ivanov (1837-57)

How would you feel if you had spent almost half of your life on one painting and then after all that effort it was not well received?   This is what happened to Alexander Ivanov and his monumental painting The Appearance of Christ to the People.  This oil on canvas work measures 540cms x 750cms (18ft x 24ft 6ins).   Ivanov started on the painting in 1837 and did not complete and exhibit it in St Petersburg until 1858.  This is My Daily Art Display featured painting for today.

Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov was born in St. Petersburg in 1806.  He studied art at the St Petersburg Imperial Academy of Arts under his father, the painter Andrei Ivanov.  At the age of twenty-five he went to live in Rome where he studied the arts of the classical world.   Coincidentally Ivanov was a contemporary of the Scottish painter William Dyce whom I featured yesterday and like Dyce when Ivanov was in Rome he became friends with Friedrich Overbeck, a German painter and leading member of the Nazarenes.  The Nazarenes were a group of young and idealistic German painters of the early nineteenth century who believed that art should serve a religious or moral purpose.  The name Nazarenes was given to them facetiously because of their devout way of life and the propensity to wear their hair in biblical hairstyles.  It was because of this friendship and exchange of views with the Nazarenes that Ivanov concentrated on religious paintings.

One of hundreds of preliminary sketches

Ivanov’s fame is inseparable from this great masterpiece of his,  which I am featuring today.  The finished painting is based on hundreds of preparatory studies he made over twenty years, many of which are gems in themselves and are considered by art historians as masterpieces in their own right.  This painting and about 300 preparatory sketches are housed in Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery.  Art critics believe that the preparatory sketches reveal greater expressiveness and psychological depth than the finished painting itself. 

 Ivanov believed the Gospels to be historical rather than religious and therefore considered that the subject of this painting to be more historical than religious.  The scene is set on the banks of the River Jordan and is based on the Gospel of Matthew 3:13-16:

“…Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him.  John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’  But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfil all righteousness.’ Then he consented.  And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him;  and behold, a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.’…”

In the middle ground we see the solitary figure of Christ on a rocky mound approaching the gathering.  Behind him in the background is a wide plain and the distant mountains.  His figure is small in comparison to the others but nevertheless stands out because of it being a lone figure.  In the foreground of the picture there are a number of male figures of varying ages, some of whom are already undressed waiting to be baptised.  The main figure with his wavy black hair,  dressed in his animal skin under a long cloak is John the Baptist, with a crosier in his left hand.  He raises his hands aloft and gestures towards the approaching solitary figure of Christ.

John the Baptist

To the left there are a group of disciples who will soon move on and spread the word of the Lord.  To the right we have the Pharisees and scribes who unbendingly reject the Truth.  In the centre of the group the artist has painted a haggard old man struggling to his feet buoyed by the words of John the Baptist.     

This is a beautiful painting, full of colour and meticulous detail.  In 1858, Alexander Ivanov went with his beloved painting to St Petersburg where it was exhibited. Its lukewarm reception must have been heartbreaking for Ivanov.  He died a few months later of cholera aged 52 not knowing that some years after his death his work of art would be hailed, by the likes of Ilya Repin, the most celebrated Russian painter of his day, as “the greatest work in the whole world, by a genius born in Russia”.