Perhaps we need to be reminded of our own tininess, and that is why we find ourselves drawn to such works?Regardless, to my eyes, Aivazovsky’s painting of the sea remain very, very much among the best of the genre.
Ivan Aivazovsky—held by both Russians and Armenians to be their own greatest painter of the 19th century—was born Hovhannes Aivazian into an Armenian family in 1817. His well-educated father was a hard-working trader who found his fortunes destroyed a plague epidemic in 1815; thus the future great artist was born into true poverty. It is thought young Ivan worked in the coffee shops of his cosmopolitan home that Feodosia, coffee shops that were of course frequented by people from all over the world, and this may be what birthed in him a fascination for the lands represented by these visitors.
Though good with music, it was creating visual, not aural, works that gripped Aivazovsky’s heart—to the point that, lacking art materials, he used hunks of charcoal to create drawings on the side of Feodosia’s white-washed buildings! They must have been fine work indeed, because instead of chucking the young man into jail, the town’s governor instead helped Aivazovsky enter high school and then helped him gain entrance into Russia’s prestigious Imperial Academy of Arts in
Saint Petersburg, where the young man began his education in 1833.
Repeatedly awarded with various medals at the Academy, Aivazovsky graduated a two full years earlier than expected; despite his youth and return to the small, out-of-the-way Feodosia, his work was already gaining him fame throughout Russia. The Academy sent him to study in Europe in 1840; here he was deeply influenced by Italian art, which I’d say is a good thing indeed (visiting Italy is something I’ve longed to do my whole life). Italy and other European nations received the young artist and his work with excitement and appreciation—one of his works was even purchased by the Pope and placed in the Vatican, quite an accomplishment no matter your opinion of the Roman church.
Though it seems fair to say Aivazovsky had already well come into his own, upon returning home in 1844 he was named “official artist of the Russian Navy” with the expectation he would paint “seascapes, coastal scenes, and naval battles”. And did he ever! This is what so impresses me about Ivazovsky’s work, his sea paintings.He took part in several naval exercises which obviously helped his portrayal of battles and simply sailing; though I’d a fair idea of the scene while reading Forester’s books, Aivazovsky’s paintings of the Russian Navy’s glories actually brought back to mind several of the battles about which Forester wrote in the Hornblower series. Aivazovsky captures the sea so wonderfully, in all of its intimidating vastness, its might in motion and stillness, its varying moods—often in one painting. Making the man’s work still more impressive is that he created nearly all of his works from memory, aided only by his pencil sketchbooks! Painting from life had not worked for Aivazovsky:
If you’ve ever spent any time near, or better yet, on the ocean, you’ll probably agree with his reasoning (particularly after seeing the man’s work). Painting from memory instead of life certainly did not seem to hurt his work at all! His use of light in particular—its diffusion across the sky, the transparency it gives the waves he so masterfully portrays—is just marvellous, and well worth studying. And Romantic or not, some of the sea paintings in particular are so realistic they’re nearly breathtaking. The quality of the water in his work is just incredible; what a gifted man. Though recognized even during his lifetime as one of the world’s greatest marine painters and certainly one of the very greatest to emerge from Russia and Armenia, when Russian painters began to move toward Realism instead of the Romanticism Aivazovsky favoured, he did find himself fielding some criticism for failing to keep with the times. It’s possible that the distance of Feodosia, where he settled, from cultural centers like Moscow and Saint Petersburg had something to do with this—the painter sounds like a bit of an introvert to begin with, and his isolation from the big cities may have compounded this. I do wonder if the criticism was misplaced; elements of the very Russian angle on Realism did work their way into his art, but more importantly, I wonder if it was simply the generation from which he hailed that had much to do with his Romantic mindset, one that continued to express itself through his work. Is this so bad? Must an artist bow to every whim of the wind? It seems better to me for them to, of course, observe, but if they are not interested in or even affronted by a style, there is no harm at all in remaining true to one’s own vision. (Isn’t that rather the point of creating art?) Unsurprisingly, Aivazovsky spent a great deal of time travelling around the world; he was at the opening of the Suez Canal in Egypt, travelled along the coasts of Asia, and even visited North America near the end of his life, touring Washington, D.C. and taking in the glory of Niagara Falls, the latter resulting in yet another famous painting. But he always returned home to Feodosia, his hometown; it is widely agreed upon that he created his finest and best works here. Though he seems to have kept to himself, Aivazovsky did much for his town, providing Feodosia with water from his own estate, opening an art school and historical museum, and even commencing archaeological digs in the area.
“The movement of the elements cannot be directly captured by the brush-it is impossible to paint lightning, a gust of wind, or the splash of a wave, direct from nature. For that the artist must remember them…” (via)
Accolades and honours for his work had piled up for decades when Ivan Aivazovsky passed away when the twentieth century was still new, on April 19, 1900—a newly-begun painting unfinished in his studio.Happily, those accolades and respect continue to be expressed for Aivazovsky’s work; his Feodosia home is now a National Art Gallery, his artwork used on many stamps in Russia, Armenia, and other nearby nations, streets are named for him, and statues of the man were erected in Armenia, Crimea, and Russia. There is even a planet named for Aivazovsky! In 1897, Anton Chekhov turned a phrase that became a winged word in Russia for describing things or scenes of “ineffable beauty”—”sight worthy of Aivazovsky’s brush”. Quite a tribute, and I suspect all of these things would have pleased the artist very much.
In the years since his death, Aivazovsky’s work is not only admired but given impressive appraisals—his paintings are often given a value of over $1 million. American Shipping off the Rock of Gibraltar (which opened this post) sold for £2.71 million in 2007; His 1856 A View of Constantinople and the Bosphorus brought down Sotheby’s hammer at $5.2 (£3.2 million) as late as April of 2012—so it seems to me his work will continue holding its place for many more years to come. More about Ivan Aivanovsky: