Ivan Aivazovsky - Biography and Legacy
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.
The bustling port, with its many languages, was a fertile environment to grow up in and its endless succession of ships and sailors would have been a constant reminder of the wider world. Family lore was that young Ivan began drawing with samovar charcoal on the white-washed walls. Whether with these drawings or in some other way, his talent attracted the attention of his father's friend, an architect. He gave the boy lessons in perspective and showed the resulting drawings to the town's governor, a cultured and well-connected man who would open doors for the talented young Armenian.
Education and Early training
Young Ivan became friends with the town governor's son and was given watercolors and paper by the governor, whose promotion to provincial responsibilities saw him move his family to Simferopol, the capital of the province. Ivan went with them. Attending school there, Ivan's circle of friends expanded to include the son of Natalia Feodorovna Naryshkin, a woman with links to the Russian nobility who took a liking to Ivan and helped him secure a six-year scholarship to the Imperial Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg.
Sixteen-year-old Ivan's week-long journey to St. Petersburg, across the Ukrainian steppes to Moscow and on to the splendid city experiencing its golden age, must have felt to Aivazovsky like a great breakthrough. He would make good use of the opportunity, even though he found the Academy's training rigidly formal and its social protocols unfamiliar. A report that he spent a lot of time in the Academy's sickbay with chest pains suggests that Aivazovsky was not entirely happy in St. Petersburg, but he worked hard and coped better with the pressure when he was put into the landscape class of Maxim Nikiforovich Vorobiov. His new teacher was a fiddle player like Aivazovsky (who had taught himself to play at the age of ten), and Vorobiov's interest in "atmosphere" in painting appealed to his young student.
When Emperor Nicholas I invited French seascape painter Philippe Tanneur to St. Petersburg in 1835, the Academy was asked to supply an assistant and Aivazovsky was given the job. The young man angered the French master by taking time off sick to complete a painting of his own, which won a silver medal at the Academy's exhibition that year. Tanneur demanded the painting's removal from the exhibition and Aivazovsky was seen by some as having committed an embarrassing social faux pas. But the Emperor asked to see Aivazovsky and, impressed by the meeting, bought the painting for the Winter Palace and sent the up-and-coming painter to sea with the Baltic Fleet as an opportunity to do more maritime painting.
Aivazovsky's rapid rise depended on the patronage his talent attracted, which was typical of the time. But he was also beginning to absorb Vorobiov's emphasis on atmosphere and adapt Tanneur's seascape technique in order to produce something distinctively his own. In 1836, he had seven paintings in the Academy's exhibition, winning a gold medal, and a reviewer predicted that "the artist's talent will take him far." When Pushkin visited the exhibition, Aivazovsky was introduced and the poet would appear as a contemplative figure in several of his seashore paintings in later years.
After another attachment as an observer with a naval unit engaged in skirmishes along the Black Sea coast, Aivazovsky's studies in Europe began with the support of the Academy, as part of his gold medal award and according to the Academy's practice of sending its promising students to European capitals. Aivazovsy spent time in Berlin, Vienna, and Rome, where he lived for two years, and his Italian travels also took him to Venice, Florence, and Naples, while other trips included Holland, England, and six months in Paris. In 1842 he met the English painter J.M.W. Turner, who was living in Rome that year, and Turner greatly admired the technical precision in Aivazovsky's paintings. In addition to Turner, influences on Aivazovsky included works by the English painter William Martin and the French painter Théodore Géricault.
The artistic and intellectual milieu of the early 1840s, while a peripatetic Aivazovsky travelled, painted and absorbed a sense of what other artists were doing, was still deeply affected by late Romanticism, but a schism was about to break out between Slavophiles and Westernizers, between those who sought distinctively Russian aesthetic solutions and those who wanted to be part of larger European currents in art. In Italy, Aivazovsky met and travelled with the writer Nikolai Gogol, a committed Slavophile whose provincial background had been similar to the painter's. Both men were coming to terms with Romanticism's impact on the European imagination but, while Gogol would undermine Romantic pretensions in his writing, Aivazovsky's Romanticism would become more full-blooded and expansive. While exposure to the art of Italy and Paris honed Aivazovsky's technical skill (he called his time in Italy a "second Academy"), it was the airiness of Dutch seascapes, Turner's atmospheric turmoil, and late-Romanticism's dwarfing of the human in the face of nature's power that Aivazovsky absorbed. This put him on the Westernizing side of the intellectual rift that was appearing in Russian culture, not least in his pursuit of a distinctively individual style rather than the expression of a particularly Russian sensibility. As such, we can think of Aivazovsky as very much a successful protégé of the "academy" tradition in Europe, with which the Russian Academy had aligned itself.
When he returned in his late twenties to Russia, Aivazovsky became an academician of the Imperial Academy of Arts. He was already more successful than contemporaries such as Alexey Tyranov, who painted his portrait in 1841. He was appointed the Russian Navy's chief painter, allowing him to produce more seascapes, coastal scenes and naval battles - his favorite themes. In 1845, after travelling to Constantinople, which he viewed romantically as the spiritual capital of his world, he settled in his hometown of Theodosia where he built an impressive house and studio and enjoyed some celebrity, holding a major exhibition of his work there in 1846. In 1847 he became a professor of seascape painting at the Academy and, the next year, married Julia Graves, an English governess, with whom he would have four daughters.
It was not a happy marriage and the settled life would not be without interruptions. With the outbreak of the Crimean War, Aivazovsky's usefulness as a painter of stirring naval scenes saw him once again following the fleet. At the war's end, he went to Paris and painted twenty-five pictures there, exhibiting them with considerable success and selling many. The French Emperor recognized his work and social standing by awarding him the Legion of Honor, a unique achievement for a foreign painter. Aivazovsky the academician had become a pillar of the Russian artistic establishment and part of the European cultural élite.
In the 1860s and 1870s, however, Russia saw seismic changes that rendered Aivazovsky something of an artistic dinosaur. With the succession of Alexander II, the "Tsar liberator" who relaxed the imperial grip on Russian society, the emancipation of serfs, and other social reforms, there were calls for "bringing arts to the people" and for artists to attend to the social realities of their own country. As a grandee of the old artistic order, Aivazovsky refused to change - his subjects remained the grandiose ones on which he had built his success - the stirringly romantic seas, the visionary imagining of Constantinople's splendor, the vastness of the steppes, the naval feats symbolizing man's valor in the face of elemental forces.
In 1867, the Empress and her children, returning from a visit to Constantinople, announced their intention to visit Aivazovsky in Theodosia, where he now had an estate outside the town. He met the imperial yacht in the harbor, accompanied by flower-covered gondolas. Overseen by Aivazovsky, the town was festooned with flags and a triumphal arch had been constructed, costumed children performed a special ballet, and a lavish meal was held at Aivazovsky's estate against a huge painted backdrop of a romanticized Constantinople. For the next thirty years, Russia would see profound social and cultural changes, but it is as if Aivazovsky's painting got stuck in time that day, when he entertained the Empress in the town where he had escaped his humble upbringing and presented her with a painting of their extravagant festivities.
Aivazovsky would continue to paint prolifically and lucratively, until his last exhibition in St. Petersburg in 1900, not long before his death, and those last three decades saw his technique magisterially consolidated. His virtuoso skill was in repeating what he had become so successful at doing. When he transformed the fishermen of Theodosia into Venetian gondoliers for the Empress' delight, Aivazovsky staged a version of his own painterly vision, in which the ordinary disappears behind the art of the self-consciously sublime.
Aivazovsky started an art school in Theodosia, contributed greatly to the development of the town, continued to travel - his 1872 exhibition in Nice drew enormous crowds - and he opened the first provincial art gallery in Russia. He received further honors. He re-married more happily at the age of 65. In 1892, he travelled to North America, where he had twenty paintings in the World Exhibition in Chicago. His eightieth birthday saw Theodosia decked out in celebratory flags once again, its hotels full of visiting dignitaries. Not long after, he gave his last class at the Academy - an energetic two-hour practical demonstration of seascape technique that ended with rapturous applause.
The Legacy of Ivan Aivazovsky
Aivazovsky was Russian art's "last Romantic" and a figurehead as such, rather than a direct influence on later artists. His travels to European capitals put him instinctively on the side of the Westernizers in Russia's cultural schism of the late-19th century, but his subsequent reaction to Slavophile calls for a more authentic art was to retreat into a conservative and dreamy vision of Constantinople as an imagined spiritual capital for a hybrid European and Eastern identity, of Crimean gypsy encampments as an idealization of community, of fishermen dwarfed by the sea and peasants dwarfed by the steppes, of Ukrainian farmsteads warmed by the almost divine benevolence of a nurturing sun. Aivazovsky was not a plein-air painter - he painted in his studio from drawings - and his scenes are never explorations of what he was looking at but rather imaginings assembled out of collected details and his own memory. Typically, he had not witnessed what he painted but instead gathered enough details in his sketchbooks to paint something that he had seen in his mind's eye. In that respect, Aivazovsky's legacy is minimal, his Romanticism superficial, his working process and intentions self-indulgent to today's critical taste, his rapid turnover of canvases pandering to the demand for more of the same from his exhibitors and buyers, and his conservatism out of reach to the radical forces that would re-shape and re-energize Russian culture.
In another respect, however, Aivazovsky's legacy still resonates. His skies were always thinly painted, usually in one fast session using thin washes, but his seas were layered on with thick brushes, working outwards from a center of detail, such as a ship, so that the peripheral vision is more impressionistic than detailed. Unlike other 19th century academicians who painstakingly and methodically worked over a canvas in precise detail, Aivazovsky's engagement with the canvas could be much more instantaneous, embodied, and visceral at times. He would propel his body at the surface, brush in hand, in order to create the force he wanted in the paint. Visitors to his studio report the physical effort he exerted and the exhaustion that often resulted from working rapidly and with such physical intensity. While Aivazovsky's placid scenes often feel dated and lifeless now, many of his stormy seascapes still churn with this energy and physicality. This commitment of his own body to the act of painting, and the resulting viscerality of his seas as painted surfaces, still feels vividly alive and exemplary of what painting can achieve through its raw materiality.