Summary of Ivan Aivazovsky
Over half of Ivan Aivazovsky's some 6,000 paintings are maritime subjects and of these the most enduringly powerful are his turbulent seascapes that made him the success of the late Russian Empire. However, as momentum for change grew in late-19th-century Russia, Aivazovsky's technical prowess and prolific output remained tied to his successful formula. His attachment to Romanticism remained especially apparent in his paintings of storm-tossed vessels dwarfed by natural grandeur, while his patriotic attachment to the Russia of old remained apparent in his paintings of naval victories. A younger generation of Russian artists, who engaged more creatively with a changing world, quickly eclipsed Aivazovsky in importance, but the market for his work remains buoyant to this day and his best seascapes still communicate a raw energy.
- Aivazovsky was one of the last great academicians in the Russian art world, a product of the network of European academies, a Westernizer due to his travels around Europe's artistic capitals, a favorite of the Imperial family, but increasingly out of step with reformers calling for a more socially responsive and authentically Russian art.
- Aivazovsky can best be understood as the artistic boy from a poor background in a Black Sea port who found that well-connected patrons could transport him to the glittering world of St. Petersburg, from where he returned to his home town a success and a celebrity. When the Black Sea erupts through the well-mannered surfaces of his paintings, as it occasionally does, the polite salons of St. Petersburg seem to give way to the Armenian boy's awe before elemental forces.
- An extraordinarily fast and prolific painter, often on a grand scale, Aivazovsky at his best injected the energy of late Romanticism into scenes that were otherwise coldly accomplished in their self-conscious grandeur and striving for pathos. Some of his late seascapes embody this energy in a less mannered way and the physical expressiveness of these painted surfaces still speaks to a more modern interest in the materiality of painting.
- A young Aivazovsky and the elderly English painter J. M. W. Turner met when they were both visiting Rome. They admired each other's work and both painted the sea with an expressive turbulence. However, a fellow member of the Royal Academy in London could still deride Turner's late paintings as "blots" whereas Aivazovsky's early work was garnering acclaim for its classical virtues. Today, we might wish that Aivazovsky had learnt more from Turner, whose "blots" stand as triumphantly experimental precursors of a modern vision whereas Aivazovsky's body of work demonstrates how traditional virtues in painting can constrain that vision if applied too conservatively.
Biography of Ivan Aivazovsky
Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky was born in 1817, in Theodosia, a Black Sea port that, although small, had seen centuries of cosmopolitan trade. A 14th century Arab traveler reported two hundred ships in its harbor. Ivan's father Konstantin was an Armenian merchant who lost much of his wealth when the town was struck by plague five years before Ivan's birth. Aivazovsky, christened Hovhannes, the Armenian form of Ivan, was the youngest of three sons and grew up in the family's small, one-story white-washed house on a hill above the port from where he had a panoramic view of the sea.
Important Art by Ivan Aivazovsky
Though mawkish to a contemporary eye, Chaos (The Creation), painted in his early twenties when Aivazovsky was living in Rome, following his studies at the Imperial Academy in St. Petersburg, was acquired by Pope Gregory XVI who had it hung in the Vatican, despite controversy around its literalistic depiction of a divine presence. In this regard, Nikolai Gogol, the Russian-Ukrainian writer and friend of Aivazovsky wrote: "Your Chaos caused a chaos in the Vatican."
The chaos to which the title refers is, of course, that from which the Christian God created the world, depicted here as an act of commanding the natural elements to take form and submit to the divine presence. Whether mischievously pandering to literal-minded taste or reflecting the painter's own genuine belief, the painting was something of a blockbuster hit for the ambitious young man doing his European tour and proved to Aivazovsky that the sublime sells in the right context.
The lower half of the painting shows early signs of Aivazovsky's extraordinary technical competence in painting stormy seas. In Chaos (The Creation), the upper half of the painting suggests a painter still trying to decide what to do with that competence, with his own God-like command of his materials, and whether his attachment to Romanticism required a glorification of something more than nature's own powers.
The Ninth Wave, usually cited as Aivazovsky's most famous work, is a huge painting of nearly 11 feet (3.3 meters) by 7 feet (2.2 meters), which portrays a group of people clinging to flotsam from a wrecked ship, in the midst of a tempestuous sea surrounded by the brilliant gold tones of the sunrise. The title refers to a traditional nautical belief that the ninth wave is the last, largest and most deadly wave in a series, at which point the cycle begins again. Painted when Aivazovsky was 33 years old, it is characteristic of his mature Romanticism in technique, theme and populist appeal.
The Christian message is less explicit, being confined to the cross-like form of the mast and the pleading attitude of the unfortunates clinging to it, as they look to the rising sun just before the big wave strikes. Displaying the classical academic discipline of composition and palette that Aivazovsky had been taught and then observed in the galleries and salons of the European capitals, The Ninth Wave has all the melodrama of Aivazovsky at his most febrile and all the grandeur of his most strident efforts to impress. The epic quality, which according to Russophile writer and poet Rosa Newmarch, in her perceptive early comments about his work, had become "increasingly pronounced" by this point, did not yet consistently offer the more "truthful vision" of which she found Aivazovsky to be capable.
English novelist Virginia Woolf referred to Dostoyevsky's novels as "seething whirlpools ... waterspouts which hiss and spout and suck us in". It is perhaps no coincidence then that Dostoyevsky loved this painting, seeing in it the thrill "that startles a spectator in a real-life storm." With this work, Dostoevsky claimed that Aivazovsky became a "master who has no competition." Woolf's contemporary, the writer Rosa Newmarch, traveled extensively in Russia, immersed herself in its art and culture, and wrote of Aivazovsky's "truthful vision" in paintings such as The Rainbow.
The painting portrays survivors tossed in a tempestuous sea, as their ship sinks in the background after a wild storm. The colors of the atmosphere and of the ocean are muted and use a soft subdued palette of white, pink, purple and light blue; shifting in subtle shades, they seem to morph and blend, creating a mood of windswept resignation in sharp contrast with the over-stated melodrama of The Ninth Wave from two decades earlier. An almost imperceptible rainbow tinges the clarity that seeps across the sky from the right.
There is a whirlpool effect to the painting as a whole, its swirl of spray, clouds, and sea insistently drawing the eye away from the softly defined periphery and into the space between men and ship, where it feels as if the storm may be starting to pass, sweeping away to the left of the scene. The thrill that Dostoyevsky detected is the thrill of the storm's power but also of how the faint emergence of the rainbow hints at its passing. The pathos of the ship's loss gives way in the instant to our recognition of the complex thrill that the sailors would be feeling. Such moments of startled feeling are perhaps what Newmarch meant by a "truthful vision" in Aivazovsky's best work.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Ivan Aivazovsky
- Light, Water and Sky: The Paintings of Ivan AivazovskyBy Gianni Caffiero and Ivan Samarine
- Ivan Aivazovsky: Color PlatesBy Maria Peitcheva
- AivazovskyBy Valeriy Pilipenko
- Ivan Aivazovsky's Paintings Bequeathed to Art HistoryBy Irina Osipova / Russian Beyond Magazine / August 14, 2016
- Analysis of Shipwreck and A Strong Wind