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Ivan Aivazovsky

Russian Painter

Ivan Aivazovsky Photo
Movement: Romanticism

Born: July 29, 1817 - Theodosia, Ukraine

Died: May 2, 1900 - Theodosia, Ukraine

"The movement of natural elements cannot be captured by the brush: to paint lightning, a gust of wind, or the splash of a wave from nature is inconceivable."

Ivan Aivazovsky Signature

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.

Key Ideas

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.
Ivan Aivazovsky Photo

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.

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