September 19, 2021

Worthy of Aivazovsky's Brush

Worthy of Aivazovsky's Brush
Six Aivazovskys in the Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Do you prefer the big hopeless Wave on the left with the drowning bull or the big hopeful Ninth Wave on the right? Wikimedia Commons user Yerevantsi

I never had a favorite artist until I moved to Russia. Then I went to the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg and caught sight of the sublime maritime scenes of Ivan Aivazovsky (1817–1900). Although he only occupies one gallery, most visitors undoubtedly leave the museum with Aivazovsky's waves still dancing in their heads.

If you love the sea, Aivazovsky is your man. He is the world's most famous marine painter.

Born in Crimea, Aivazovsky depicted both calm and raging seas in the Russian Empire, mainly along the Black Sea. He painted a massive 6,000 works, usually painting water from memory instead of en plein air as many of the nineteenth century's landscape painters did. Aivazovsky had a talent for painting moving water scenes from memory and believed that a "real artist" should be able to paint without a reference. He said, "The subject of a painting takes shape in my memory as the subject of a poem does in a poet's" (Fifty Russian Artists, 1985). Perhaps he said that because he was friends with Alexander Pushkin.

Aivazovsky's The Ninth Wave
Aivazovsky's The Ninth Wave (1850). | Wikimedia Commons user Túrelio, designated in the public domain

Aivazovsky's masterpiece, The Ninth Wave (1850; held by the Russian Museum), is based on a sailor superstition that the ninth wave during a storm is the worst one. Yet the painting conveys a strong sense of hope with the sun coming out after the storm has already passed. The artist himself thought it was his best work.

But my favorite Aivazovsky painting is simply called The Wave (1889; also held by the Russian Museum) and is far less optimistic. It depicts a hopeless ship, sinking under whatever wave number, and there is even a shadow of a bull about to drown. Unfortunately, you will have to go to the Russian Museum to see the bull because it is too small to even zoom in on in most digital renderings. Since these two masterpieces are huge in person, you cannot miss the haunting bull disappearing into the ether in person and at about eye level for many adults. In The Wave, the light shining through the waves is transcendent, especially in the lower left corner of the painting.

The Wave, Aivazovsky
Aivazovsky's The Wave (1889). Check out those transparent waves! | Wikimedia Commons user Thesupermat2

Aivazovsky was born Hovhannes Aivazian in 1817 to Armenian merchant parents who lived in the Crimean town of Feodosia. He was thus close to the sea for most of his life and, as a child, he had a "panoramic view of the sea." The artist's father came up with the Slavic surname Gaivazovsky when he lived in Polish Galicia. Eventually, the "G" was dropped to better reflect the original Armenian surname.

Aivazovsky the younger was educated at the Imperial Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg. It was there that he first met Pushkin in 1836. Pushkin appeared in several of Aivazovsky's paintings, and the two artistic masters remained in contact.

Aivazovsky, Pushkin at the Black Sea Coast
Aivazovsky, Pushkin at the Black Sea Coast (1887). | Wikimedia Commons user Павло Сарт, designated in the public domain​​​

The painter also spent time in that great center of European art, Italy. According to Fifty Russian Artists, after studying in Rome, Aivazovsky was dubbed the "founder of the genre of seascape in Rome," and "imitation Aivazovskys" started showing up all over the art world.

He was the first Russian artist to have his work displayed at the Louvre. He was also the first painter to depict the Suez Canal during its opening ceremony in 1869.

Aivazovsky in the Pushkin Museum
Aivazovsky hanging in the Pushkin Apartment Museum in St. Petersburg. | Amanda Shirnina

No one has ever painted the sea like Aivazovsky. The sea was "the true and only hero of his paintings." Fifty Russian Artists notes, "The work of Ivan Aivazovsky... can be regarded as a single epic poem of the sea."

Aivazovsky had such a talent for showing the way light played on the sea that Russian painter Ivan Kramskoi suggested that the latter invented a new luminescent pigment. In truth, he used glazing, or "applying thin layers of colors one over another," to achieve the effect. A side benefit of this technique is that Aivazovsky's paintings degrade much slower than those of other artists of his time.

Perhaps his sea paintings were so good because Aivazovsky was made the Russian Navy's official painter, with the title "Painter to the Naval Staff" (Fifty Russian Artists). He had an insider's view of the fleet in action. Aivazovsky also survived several storms at sea himself. I do not know if he watched a bull drown in one of those storms or not.

The artist did more for the sea than just paint it. In the 1890s, he persuaded the Russian government to install a commercial port in Feodosia and link it up with the railway system. The station is called Aivazovskaya. As if to further link his legacy with water, Aivazovsky ensured that his hometown had healthy potable drinking water.

Artist Arkhip Kuindzhi, whose Moonlit Night on the Dnieper (1880; also held by the Russian Museum) is absolutely haunting, was undoubtedly influenced by Aivazovsky.

Kuindzhi, Moonlit Night on the Dnieper
Kuindzhi's Moonlit Night on the Dnieper (1880)A digital version cannot do justice to the sublime magnificence of the original in the Russian Museum. | Wikimedia Commons user DcoetzeeBot, designated in the public domain

Aivazovsky's first of two wives was named Julia Graves – an English governess. They had four daughters, the first three of whom had Russian names and the last of which was simply Joanne.

In 1880, Aivazovsky turned his Feodosia home into an art gallery. Museums were barely a thing then, and his gallery became only the third museum in Russia, after St. Petersburg's Hermitage and Moscow's Tretyakov Gallery. There was not a museum for everything the way there is now – like the Museum of Emotions or Museum of Chocolate in St. Petersburg.

Aivazovsky was trained in the Romantic style that rapidly gave way to Realism during his lifetime, making him seem a bit old-fashioned to his contemporaries.

Among the public, though, Aivazovsky was one of few Russian artists to be truly appreciated in his own time. I mean, have you ever seen any better ocean paintings than Aivazovsky's?! Certainly his somewhat unique watery subject – as opposed to, say, portraiture – made him famous widely in his own lifetime. Perhaps that is also why he produced over 6,000 works of art: the people loved him! They wanted more Aivazovsky.

The painter apparently died while painting Exploding Ship (1900). It was April 19, 1900, and he was 82 years old (Fifty Russian Artists).

Aivazovsky, Exploding Ship
Aivazovsky, Exploding Ship (1900)He died before he finished it. | Wikimedia Commons user Rfdarsie, designated in the public domain

The artist's legacy remains strong today, but primarily in former Soviet spaces. The Russian Museum website states that "It is hard to find another figure in the history of Russian art enjoying the same popularity among amateur viewers and erudite professionals alike." That said, most of today's Americans and Europeans have never heard of him.

Some of Aivazovsky's paintings are privately owned. Russian oligarchs have been buying up many of them at auctions. In 2012, one painting sold at Sotheby's for $5.2 million. In 2019, an exhibition devoted to his privately owned works – which had never been seen together – was staged on Kronstadt, St. Petersburg's island naval base and future ultra-modern touristy theme park. Kronstadt also has Russia's only Aivazovsky statue.

Aivazovsky Statue, Kronstadt
Aivazovsky Statue, Kronstadt./ Amanda Shirnina

The Simferopol International Airport in Crimea has been named for Aivazovsky since 2019, and the man's face appears on the 20,000 Armenian dram note.

In his play Uncle Vanya, Anton Chekhov popularized the phrase "worthy of Aivazovsky's brush" to describe something absolutely lovely. I hope the phrase will catch on among English speakers too. Besides, we English speakers need more expressions to match the sheer number of Russian expressions for every little thing.

Aivazovsky, Moon over Odessa
Aivazovsky's Moon over Odessa (1846). | Wikimedia Commons user Cul2re, designated in the public domain


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