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Ivan Aivazovsky (1817-1900)

Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky was born in the family of a merchant of Armenian origin in the town of Theodosia, Crimea. His parents were under strained circumstances and he spent his childhood in poverty. There is some evidence to suggest that poverty obliged the young Aivazovsky to work in the cosmopolitan coffee-shops of Theodosia, alive with the chatter of many different tongues: Italian, Greek, Turkish, Armenian and Tatar. The young boy's eager mind soaked up all the colorful sights and sounds which Theodosia with its mixed population had to offer. He also had a keen musical ear and soon learned to play folk melodies on the violin. Later Aivazovsky recalled some of these melodies for his composer friend Mikhail Glinka, who used them in his compositions.

It was drawing, however, which most seized the young boy's imagination: lacking other materials he drew in charcoal on the whitewashed walls of Theodosia. These drawings attracted the attention of A. Kaznacheyev, the town-governor, who helped Aivazovsky to enter the high school at Simpheropol and in 1833, the St. Petersburg Academy of Fine Arts, where he took the landscape painting course and was especially interested in marine landscapes. In the autumn of 1836 Aivazovsky presented 5 marine pictures to the Academic exhibition, and they were highly appreciated. In 1837, Aivazovsky received the Major Gold Medal for Calm in the Gulf of Finland (1836) and The Great Road at Kronstadt (1836), which allowed him to go on a long study trip abroad. However the artist first went to the Crimea to perfect himself in his chosen genre by painting the sea and views of the Crimean coastal towns.

When Aivazovsky began his career, Russian art was still dominated by Romanticism and it was the romantic mood which set the terms for Russian landscape painting in the second half of the nineteenth century. It is scarcely surprising then to discover romantic elements both in Aivazovsky's early works, and in the majority of his later ones. One reflection of this is his choice of subjects - again and again we find him depicting shipwrecks, raging sea battles and storms.

Aivazovsky's student days in St. Petersburg coincided with a confused and in many ways contradictory phase in the Russian history. On the one hand it was a period of harsh tyrannical rule and political stagnation under tsar Nicholas I, on the other it witnessed a great flowering of Russian culture, beginning after the Napoleonic War of 1812. This was the age of Pushkin, Gogol, Lermontov, Belinsky, Glinka and Briullov. Within the Academy the canons of Classicism, closely linked to ideas of civic duty and patriotism, still held sway, but the new stirrings of Romanticism were also discernible.

The great success of Karl Briullov's picture The Last Day of Pompeii made a lasting impression on Aivazovsky, summing up as it did the victory of the Romantic school in the Russian painting. Both the picture and Briullov himself played an important part in stimulating Aivazovsky's own creative development. In general Russian art of the first half of the nineteenth century combined Romanticism with Realism and very often both principles found expression in an artist's works. This was especially evident in landscape painting, an essentially realistic art form which continued romantic features for a long time. Aivazovsky acquired a romantic outlook in his student years and maintained it in maturity. He remained to the end one of the most faithful disciples of Romanticism, although this did not prevent him from evolving his own form of realism.

During the period of 1840-1844 Aivazovsky as a pensioner of the Academy of Fine Arts spent some time in Italy. In Rome he got acquainted with some of the outstanding people of the time. He made friends with Nikolai Gogol and was on good terms with Alexander Ivanov and other Russian artists living in Rome. He also traveled to Germany, France, Spain, and Holland. He worked much and had many exhibitions, meeting success everywhere he went. He painted a lot of marine landscapes, which became very popular in Italy: The Bay of Naples by Moonlight (1842), Seashore. Calm (1843); Malta Valetto Harbor (1844). Newspapers wrote: "Pope Gregory XVI has purchased Aivazovsky's picture Chaos and had it hung in the Vatican, where only the pictures of the world's greatest artists are considered worthy of a place. His Chaos is generally held to be quite unlike anything seen before; it is said to be a miracle of artistry".

His works were highly appreciated by J. W. M. Turner, a prominent English landscape and marine painter. He was so struck by the picture The Bay of Naples on a Moonlit Night that he dedicated a rhymed eulogy in Italian to Aivazovsky:

In this your picture
Of a mighty king!

I see the moon, all gold and silver.
Forgive me if I err, great artist,

Reflected in the sea below...
Your picture has entranced me so,

And on the surface of the sea
Reality and art are one,

There plays a breeze which leaves a trail
And I am all amazement.

Of trembling ripples, like a shower
So noble, powerful is the art

Of fiery sparks or else the gleaming headdress
That only genius could inspire!

In the course of his work, Aivazovsky evolved his own method of depicting the motion of the sea – from memory, without preliminary sketches, limiting himself to rough pencil outlines. Aivazovsky's phenomenal memory and romantic imagination allowed him to do all this with incomparable brilliance. The development of this new method reflected the spirit of the age, when the ever-increasing romantic tendencies put an artist's imagination to the front.

When in 1844 the artist returned to St. Petersburg, he was awarded the title of Academician, and became attached to the General Naval Headquarters. This allowed him to travel much with Russian fleet expeditions on different missions; he visited Turkey, Greece, Egypt, and America. From 1846 to 1848 he painted several canvases with naval warfare as the subject; the pictures portrayed historical battles of the Russian Fleet - The Battle of Chesme (1848), The Battle in the Chios Channel (1848), Meeting of the Brig Mercury with the Russian Squadron... (1848).

Meeting of the Brig Mercury with the Russian Squadron

Towards the 1850s the romantic features in Aivazovsky's work became increasingly pronounced. This can be seen quite clearly in one of his best and most famous paintings The Tenth Wave (1850) and also in Moonlit Night (1849); The Sea. Koktebel (1853); Storm (1854), and others.

The Tenth Wave

The process which determined the development of Russian art in the second half of the 19th century, also affected Aivazovsky. A new and consistently realistic tendency appeared in his work, although the romantic features still remained.

The artist's greatest achievement of this period is The Black Sea (1881), a picture showing the nature of the sea, eternally alive, always in motion. Other important pictures of the late years are The Rainbow (1873), Shipwreck (1876), The Billow (1889), The Mary Caught in a Storm (1892).

Aivazovsky left more than 6000 paintings. He got good commissions and became rich. He spent much money on charity, especially in his native town. He opened the first School of Arts in Theodosia in 1865, then the Art Gallery in 1889. He was a member of Academies of Stuttgart, Florence, Rome and Amsterdam.

The Billow

Aivazovsky's success was well-earned, for no other artist managed to capture with such brilliance, conviction and apparent ease that most difficult of subjects for the painter - the changing moods of the sea. Aivazovsky succeeded in combining accurate topographical information with a poetic mood.

Aivazovsky was not just a professional marine painter. He knew the sea and loved it sincerely. Although he turned occasionally to other art forms such as landscape and portraiture, these were only brief departures from his chosen genre to which he remained faithful all his life.

Aivazovsky was revered by the Russian Navy in a way unparalleled in the history of art. In 1846, for example, the Navy marked the tenth anniversary of Aivazovsky's artistic career: admiral Kornilov sent a special squadron of battleships from Sevastopol to congratulate the artist.

The artist lived a very long and happy life. He maintained his capacity for work, his energy and lively creative intelligence until the very end of his life. Renowned Russian portraitist Ivan Kramskoy referred to Aivazovsky as "a star of the first magnitude" and thus correctly established the painter's place in the pantheon of Russian art. Fate was kind to Aivazovsky, bestowing on him a clear mind and rich soul. He worked all his life in a congenial setting of his own choice; in his lifetime he received all the signs of official recognition which he deserved; his talent was universally acclaimed.