In the first part of my blog featuring the Russian seascape and marine painter, Ivan Aivazovsky I concentrated on his seascapes and marine paintings which, on the whole, depicted calm and idyllic seas. However, what made me choose Ivan Aviazovsky for my blog was the masterful way he depicted the raging fury of the sea and man’s fight for survival in those terrifying conditions. I experienced that ferocity during my years working on ships but never have I seen it being depicted so graphically. His vivid depiction in his paintings of the terrifying power of the raging seas is masterly.
One of my favourite seascape paintings by Aviazovsky is his 1850 work entitled The Ninth Wave. It is also probably his best-known work. The title refers to a popular sailing legend that the ninth wave is the most terrible, powerful, destructive wave that comes after a succession of incrementally larger waves. In his painting, set at night, he depicts a raging sea, which has been whipped up by a storm. In the foreground we see people clinging to the mast of a vessel which had sunk during the night. Note how the artist has depicted the debris the people are clinging to in the shape of a cross and this element can be looked upon as a metaphor for salvation from the earthly sin. The people clinging to the debris are lit by the warmth of breaking sunlight and this gives one to believe that they may yet be saved. The painting was originally acquired for the State Russian Museum of St Petersburg and was one of the first paintings in the collection of the Emperor Alexander III Russian Museum in 1897.
There are many great paintings by Aviazovsky depicting raging seas. I particularly like one entitled The Billowing Sea.
The sheer size of this work, 304 x 505cms (119 x 199 in) is breathtaking.
Another one of his works which I saw at the Tretyakov Museum in Moscow the other week was his painting entitled The Rainbow which features a sailing ship foundering on rocks whilst two lifeboats full of sailors try to manoeuvre their boats ashore through the fierce seas. It is a truly remarkable work in which Aviazovsky created a scene of a storm as if seen from inside the raging sea. In the foreground, we see the sailors who have taken to a lifeboat and abandoned their sinking ship which had foundered on the rocky shoreline. They had spent the whole night in the boat. Suddenly they see a rainbow and feel that all is not lost. The reflection of the rainbow can just be seen to the left of the painting. Fyodor Dostoevsky, the Russian novelist, was an admirer of Aivazovsky’s art and The Rainbow was his favourite work. Of the painting, 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…”
In 1842 Aivazovsky had completed his two-year stint in Italy. He had spent many hours in various museums studying paintings by the Italian masters and became heavily influenced by Italian art and he looked upon his time at the museums as time in his “second academy”. He was awarded a gold medal by Pope Gregory XVI for his artwork. Aivazovsky left Italy in 1842 and travelled around Europe for the next two years. He had his work exhibited in an international exhibition at the Louvre, where he was the only representative from Russia. During his stay in France, he also received a gold medal from the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture. In 1844 he returned to Russia.
Upon his return to Russia, Aivazovsky was made an Academician of the Imperial Academy of Arts and was appointed the official artist of the Russian Navy to paint seascapes, coastal scenes and naval battles. In 1845, Aivazovsky travelled to the Aegean Sea with Duke Konstantin Nikolayevich and visited the Ottoman capital, Constantinople, and the Greek islands of Patmos and Rhodes. After years of travel Aivazovsky decided to settle down in his hometown of Feodosia In 1845. He built a house and studio and cut himself off from the outside world just maintaining a friendship with close friends.
As in life itself, time moves on and change is inevitable. So was the case with Russian art in the mid nineteenth century. Aivazovsky’s love of painting romantic seascapes was becoming unfashionable with the new style of Russian art – Russian Realism, becoming more and more popular. Aivazovsky could not accept the change and persevered with his Romantic style seascapes and his artwork began to be criticised.
For a beautiful seascape one needs look no further than the one which the eighty-one-year-old Ivan Aivazovsky completed in 1898, just two years before he died, entitled Among the Waves. For once it is a pure seascape without any ships, afloat or sinking, and no sailors in lifeboats trying to survive their watery ordeal. However, with this painting came an interesting tale with regards the depiction. Before us we see that a storm has already erupted in full force and the black stormy sky threatens worse to come. Look how the water in the foreground is almost translucent, a mixture of greyish-green and silvery blue, dependent on how the sunlight, which bursts through from behind the storm cloud, falls upon the water. The waves are topped with white caps of foam. It is a pure sea and sky painting but it was not always so. Originally Aivazovsky had included in the depiction his “signature” boat which was struggling to survive but when Ivan asked his grandson what he thought of the painting his grandson told the elderly man that it was admirable work but queried why his grandfather had added to the depiction a “toy-like” boat with people in it. According to the memoirs of his grandson, the artist was terribly angry with his comments and, without a word, turned and walked away. The next day when the family members looked at the painting they found that the little boat full of sailors had been removed from the canvas !
In 1847, Aivazovsky became the professor of seascape painting at the Imperial Academy of Arts and was elevated to the rank of nobility. That year, he also was elected to the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences.
In 1848, Aivazovsky married Julia Graves, an English governess. She was the daughter of a St. Petersburg doctor, the Briton Jacob Grevs. It is believed that he may have been more than just an ordinary physician as rumour had it that he was personal physician of Tsar Alexander I. Grevs mysteriously disappeared after the death of the emperor. Julia was an eighteen-year-old well-educated beauty when she married thirty-one-year-old Aivazovsky. The couple went on to have four daughters: Elena (1849), Maria (1851), Alexandra (1852) and Joanne (1858). Their marriage foundered after twelve years and they separated in 1860 with Julia leaving the marital home and taking the children. The breakdown of their marriage seems to have been the result of Ivan’s all-consuming passion for his art which left him little time for his wife. Anna finally could not accept this kind of marriage. The couple divorced in 1877 with permission from the Armenian Church, since Graves was a Lutheran and Julia remained in her new home in Odessa.
Aivazovsky completed a number of paintings depicting Russian naval battles and one of his most famous works was his 1848 painting entitled Battle of Chesme at Night which illustrated the Russian-Turkish naval battle which took place on July 7th, 1770. At this significant battle, the Russian Navy defeated the Turkish navy at the Bay of Chesme. This was quite an upset as the Turkish navy at that time was the strongest in the world. It would seem that the Turkish fleet had all the advantages – a significant advantage in the power of their fleet, the backup of their on-shore batteries, a good location and the glory of the strongest navy in the world. But for the Turks nothing quite went to plan. Early into the battle, following a bombardment by the Russian ships, one of the Turkish ships exploded. That night, the remaining part of the Russian fleet came to the bay, including their four fire-ships (specially converted small vessels of the fleet, which were intended to set fire to enemy ships of the line). Just one of them reached the Turkish warships and the Russian sailors set fire to their fire-ship and took flight in their lifeboats. The tactic succeeded and the Turkish battleship which had been rammed by the Russian fire-ship exploded and started a chain reaction. Soon more Turkish ships were ablaze and by the end of the night the Turkish navy had been destroyed. The horror of the battle was perfectly conveyed by Ivan Aivazovsky in his painting.
In 1853, the Crimean War erupted between Russia and the Ottoman Empire, and Aivazovsky was evacuated to the northern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. When the Crimea became safer, he returned to the besieged fortress of Sevastopol to paint battle scenes. He also depicted the famous Battle of Sinop, at which the Russian navy was victorious over the navy of the Ottoman Empire on November 30th 1853 at Sinop, a sea port in northern Anatolia. It was during this maritime battle that a squadron of Imperial Russian warships struck and defeated a squadron of Ottoman ships anchored in the harbour. It resulted in an ignominious defeat of the once all-powerful Turkish fleet at the hands of the Russian navy.
In another painting of the battle often referred to as Night after the Battle, the sky is black, and the light from the stars has been extinguished. The fierce battle resulted in the death of a large number of sailors. In the background of the picture we see the burning ships of the Ottoman navy. The Turkish fleet is burning and a ship is exploding in the darkness. Part of the Turkish fleet went to the bottom, the rest of them burn out. In the foreground we see fragments of a sunken ship, on which people try to escape from imminent death.
Many honours were bestowed on Aivazovsky in the 1850’s. He had been working in Paris during 1856 and 1857 and became the first Russian, actually the first non-French artist to receive the prestigious Legion of Honour for his services to art. Leaving Paris in 1857, he visited Constantinople and was awarded the Order of the Medjidie. Also that year, he was elected an honorary member of the Moscow Art Society and the following year he was awarded the Greek Order of the Redeemer in 1859. In 1865 he was further honoured, this time by his homeland, when he was given the Russian Order of St. Vladimir. It was also the year that Aivazovsky opened an art studio in Feodosia and was awarded a salary by the Imperial Academy of Arts the same year.
Aivazovsky had become such a talented and prolific artist that he no longer needed to go outdoors for inspiration. During his almost 60-year career, he created around 6,000 paintings, making him one of the most prolific artists of his time. He had spent so many years observing his treasured surroundings that he was able to produce canvases with remarkable speed. It had got to the point in his artistic career 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 saying:
“…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…”
Although most of Aivazovsky’s paintings were seascapes or marine depictions he did complete a number of works featuring landscapes and I particularly like his 1872 winter scene, Moscow in Winter from the Sparrow Hills.
Aivazovsky had been living alone since his wife left him, taking their children. It was four years after his divorce was finalised that he happened to attend the funeral of a Feodosian merchant, named Sakrisov. At first sight of the grieving widow, Anna, following her husband’s coffin, he fell in love. Realising it would be inappropriate to approach her at such a time he bided his time but never forgot the sight of the young woman. After waiting for the sake of decency, he made an offer of marriage, which Anne accepted. Aivazovsky married his second wife, Anna Burnazian-Sarkisova in 1882. She was twenty-six-years of age and her husband was sixty-five. Aivazovsky believed that as his second wife was Armenian this marriage had brought him closer to his Armenian nation. Anna, unlike his first wife, Julia, was content with her husband devoting most of his time on his paintings and artistic career without becoming jealous, whilst she was able to enjoy her free time.
Ivan Aivazovsky died, aged 82, on April 19th 1900 in Feodosia. In accordance with his wishes, he was buried at the courtyard of St. Sargis Armenian Church. A white marble sarcophagus was made by Italian sculptor L. Biogiolli in 1901.
After Aivazovsky’s death, Anna lived a life of a recluse and for 25 years she did not leave the walls of the house, where she had been happily married. During World War II, she refused to leave her home when the country was under occupation and managed to survive by exchanging the last of her jewellery for bread and cereal. When the Germans left Feodosia, Aivazovsky’s widow, aged 87, forgotten by all, was found by the artist Nikolai Samokish and taken to his home in Simferopol. Anna died a year later, aged 88 and is buried next to her husband, in the square of the Armenian church, where they were once married.
On June 14, 2007 his painting “American Shipping off the Rock of Gibraltar” sold for £2.71 million pounds, and was the highest price paid at auction for an Ivan Aivazovsky painting. Ironically, he is also said to be the most forged of all Russian painters.