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Ivan Aivazovsky Artworks

Russian Painter

Ivan Aivazovsky Photo
Movement: Romanticism

Born: July 29, 1817 - Theodosia, Ukraine

Died: May 2, 1900 - Theodosia, Ukraine

Artworks by Ivan Aivazovsky

The below artworks are the most important by Ivan Aivazovsky - that both overview the major creative periods, and highlight the greatest achievements by the artist.

Chaos (The Creation) (1841)

Chaos (The Creation) (1841)

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 (1850)

The Ninth Wave (1850)

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.

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The Rainbow (1873)

The Rainbow (1873)

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.

The Black Sea (1881)

The Black Sea (1881)

It is instructive to compare The Black Sea with the French tradition of seascape painting that Aivazovsky was linked to through Philippe Tanneur and which included paintings by Géricault such as The Storm (or The Shipwreck). Aivazovsky's technique was undoubtedly shaped early on by Tanneur's and the latter's Steamer Off Dover resembles The Black Sea in its foregrounding of rolling waves with spume-fringed crests. But Tanneur's water is always more like Géricault's, sculpted and frozen in time. As his own technique outstripped his early teacher's, Aivazovsky was able to capture a greater sense of motion, as if the French painters' attention to surface detail got in the way of their communicating fluidity and depth.

In The Black Sea that depth is unmediated by the presence of boats or human figures (the only vessel is on the horizon), and the painting's striking achievement is in refusing us the distance that those mediating presences usually afford. Instead we are virtually in the water. It roils around us and the impression of motion is irresistible. The water has a labile density instead of a sculpted surface. Aivazovsky's characteristic lightness of touch in the sky makes it pellucid, which adds to the density and depth of the water, where Géricault's and Tanneur's skies always competed with their seas.

The Black Sea would be followed by Stormy Coastline in 1882, A Heavy Sea in 1889, and The Waves in 1898, a quartet of extraordinary paintings devoid of Aivazovsky's otherwise characteristic attachment to the pathos of the distressed at sea or the sublimity of light glowing through darkness. Those were tropes of his marketable output but he could go beyond them at times to produce paintings of enduring physicality and power like this one.

Descent of Noah from Ararat (1889)

Descent of Noah from Ararat (1889)

Throughout his career, Aivazovsky was increasingly subject to criticism from advocates of a realist style being developed by a younger generation of Russian artists, at the forefront of whom was Ilya Yefimovich Repin, awarded the title of academician in 1876, by which time Aivazovsky's success was well established. Repin, however, represented a growing social conscience among some Russian artists. Contrasting Repin's famous painting Barge Haulers on the Volga (1870-73) with Descent of Noah from Ararat reveals not only their temperamental differences but also why Aivazovsky's work represented a conservativism that Repin and others actively opposed. Repin's barge haulers are real peasants in a Russian landscape of unsentimental solidity. The people in Aivazovsky's painting are not just Biblical figures, they are Aivazovsky's dreamy imagining of his own romanticized Armenian roots combined with a vaguely conceived Orientalism that looked towards an old Constantinople and beyond for a sense of uncorrupted identity. While Repin's generation looked for a new identity, and a new artistic realism ethically attuned to social realities in a changing Russia, Aivazovsky produced hundreds of paintings like this, which sought to escape from those uncertain realities into a world of mythical certainties, for which Biblical symbolism was a convenient vehicle.

The illusion that Aivazovsky creates here, around the Old Testament story of Noah and his family leading the animals down from the postdiluvian resting place of their ark, is of a shared past sustained by supposedly timeless truths and uncorrupted by the prospect of radical human dissent from those truths. This implied message would have been reassuring to many of Aivazovsky's admirers at the time but anathema to those, like Repin, who believed that art's responsibility in Russia was increasingly to question, not reassure.

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The Wave (1889)

The Wave (1889)

The Wave interrupts a sequence of vacant and powerfully physical seascapes that began with The Black Sea in 1881 and ended with The Waves in 1898. This version differs in that it returns to Aivazovsky's old theme of the shipwrecked mariners, but it differs too from all the earlier variants on that theme because of its abandonment of hope.

There is no sunlight breaking through here, no rainbow, nothing to pray to, no sense of the storm abating and life clinging on with some prospect of rescue. If anything, the wave here seems about to bring a certain end to life. Even Aivazovsky's sky is different, no longer a thin wash but almost an angry continuation of the ocean, closing in on the scene of hopelessness. Where there was typically pathos in the desperation of Aivazovsky's many storm-tossed sailors, because they clung on with some slender prospect of surviving, here the human seems foolhardy and doomed, the vision entirely unsentimental.

What we see in Aivazovsky's late seascapes is his favorite subject - the sea itself - reclaiming its elemental power. The painter's own energetic engagement with the painted surface seems to have marked these late seascapes with a physical intensity that contrasts with his pale, romanticized evocations of old lands and picturesque shores.

Related Artists and Major Works

The Raft of the Medusa (1818-19)

The Raft of the Medusa (1818-19)

Artist: Théodore Géricault (Read Full Artist Overview, Biography, and Artworks pages)

The epic painting The Raft of the Medusa features a gruesome mass of figures afloat at sea, some dead, some struggling for life, in a tangled mass positioned on a crudely-made raft. The only African figure on the raft waves a cloth at the top of a pile of a few men who are struggling to get the attention of a ship in the distance (located on the far right of the horizon line). The sail of the raft is billowing in the wind while being tossed about a choppy ocean beneath a stormy sky. Géricault paid great attention to the details in this work. He even sketched severed body parts in order to make the work as authentic as possible.

The subject depicted is the artist's dramatic interpretation of the events beginning on July 2, 1816, when a French navy frigate crashed on its way the create colonies in West Africa. The appointed governor of the colony and the top ranking officers in the party left on the ship's six lifeboats leaving the remaining 147 passengers to be crowded onto a hastily made raft. When the raft proved too cumbersome, in a horrific act of cowardice and fear, the ship's leader cut the ropes to the raft. Left to fend for themselves the passengers eventually resorted to cannibalism. When rescued thirteen days later by a passing British ship, only fifteen men were left alive, of whom five died before they were able to reach land. When the public learned of this, it became an international tragedy and a searing indictment of the current French government. The decision to paint a scene from contemporary history - one that was utterly of the moment - brought instant attention to this work, particularly as Gericault translated it in a manner befitting classical history painting (large-scale, with heroic and tragic elements). The painting shocked the public and divided critics at the 1819 Salon. Nonetheless, its powerful subject matter and dramatic style attracted great attention to the artist, who was subsequently given the opportunity to exhibit The Raft in London and Dublin.

This work is a key example of Romantic painting. In creating the work Géricault showed a complexity of composition and an almost unsettling portrayal of reality that differed from anything that had been seen before. Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People (1830) borrows heavily from the style and composition while contemporary artists, including Frank Stella, Peter Saul, and Jeff Koons, have taken direct inspiration from this work, which has achieved the status of an artistic icon.

The Hay Wain (1821)

The Hay Wain (1821)

Movement: Romanticism (Read Movement Overview, History, and Artworks pages)

Artist: John Constable (Read Full Artist Overview, Biography, and Artworks pages)

This rural landscape depicts a hay wain, a kind of cart, drawn by three horses crossing a river. On the left bank, a cottage, known as Willy Lott's Cottage for the tenant farmer who lived there, stands behind Flatford Mill, which was owned by Constable's father. Constable knew this area of the Suffolk countryside well and said, "I should paint my own places best, painting is but another word for feeling." He made countless en plein air sketches in which he engaged in near scientific observations of the weather and the effects of light.

In Constable's landscape, man does not stand back and observe nature but is instead intimately a part of nature, just as the trees and birds are. The figuring driving the cart is not out of scale with his environment. Constable depicted the oneness with nature that so many of the Romantic poets declared.

Constable found little acclaim in his home country of England because of his refusal to follow a traditional academic path and his insistence on pursuing the lowliest of genres: landscape painting. The French Romantics, however, took him up enthusiastically after seeing this work in the 1824 Paris Salon. His ability to capture the way fleeting atmosphere determines how we see the landscape inspired such artists as Eugène Delacroix. While The Hay Wain may not have been well-received by his countrymen at the time, in 2005 it was the voted second most popular painting in England.

Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On) (1840)

Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On) (1840)

Artist: Joseph Mallord William Turner

In this painting, Turner shows a ship in the background moving through a tumultuous sea, and in the foreground, in the ship's wake, dark-skinned bodies with chains on their legs, while hovering nearby are fish and sea creatures looking dangerously ready to devour them. Turner based this painting on a poem that described the Zong, a slave ship caught in a typhoon, and the true story of that ship in 1781, when its captain ordered 133 sick and dying slaves thrown overboard so that he could collect the insurance money. Turner timed the exhibition of this painting to coincide with the meeting of the British Anti-Slavery Society. Although the British Empire had outlawed slavery in 1833, Turner believed slavery should be outlawed throughout the world, and his hope was that Prince Albert would be moved to increase anti-slavery efforts when he viewed the painting. Alongside the painting, Turner displayed lines from his unfinished poem, "Fallacies of Hope":

"Aloft all hands, strike the top-masts and belay;
Yon angry setting sun and fierce-edged clouds
Declare the Typhon's coming.
Before it sweeps your decks, throw overboard
The dead and dying - ne'er heed their chains
Hope, Hope, fallacious Hope!
Where is thy market now?"

John Ruskin, the first owner of Slave Ship, wrote, "If I were reduced to rest Turner's immortality upon any single work, I should choose this."

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