Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky (29 July 1817 –
2 May 1900) was a Russian Romantic painter. He is considered one of the
greatest marine artists in history. Baptized as Hovhannes Aivazian, Aivazovsky
was born into an Armenian family in the Black Sea port of Feodosia and was
mostly based in his native Crimea.
Following his education at the Imperial Academy of Arts, Aivazovsky traveled to
Europe and lived briefly in Italy in the early 1840s. He then returned to Russia
and was appointed the main painter of the Russian Navy. Aivazovsky had close ties
with the military and political elite of the Russian Empire and often attended
military maneuvers. He was sponsored by the state and was well-regarded during his
lifetime. The saying "worthy of Aivazovsky's brush", popularized by Anton Chekhov,
was used in Russia for "describing something ineffably lovely."
One of the most prominent Russian artists of his time, Aivazovsky was also
popular outside Russia. He held numerous solo exhibitions in Europe and the United
States. During his almost sixty-year career, he created around 6,000 paintings,
making him one of the most prolific artists of his time. The vast majority of his
works are seascapes, but he often depicted battle scenes, Armenian themes, and
portraiture. Most of Aivazovsky's works are kept in Russian, Ukrainian and Armenian
museums as well as private collections.
The young Aivazovsky received parochial education at Feodosia's St. Sargis
Armenian Church. He was taught drawing by Jacob Koch, a local architect. Aivazovsky
moved to Simferopol with Taurida Governor Alexander Kaznacheyev's family in 1830
and attended the city's Russian gymnasium. In 1833, Aivazovsky arrived in the
Russian capital, Saint Petersburg, to study at the Imperial Academy of Arts in
Maxim Vorobiev's landscape class. In 1835, he was awarded with a silver medal and
appointed assistant to the French painter Philippe Tanneur (fr). In September 1836,
Aivazovsky met Russia's national poet Alexander Pushkin during the latter's visit
to the Academy. In 1837, Aivazovsky joined the battle-painting class of Alexander
Sauerweid and participated in Baltic Fleet exercises in the Gulf of Finland. In
October 1837, he graduated from the Imperial Academy of Arts with a gold medal, two
years earlier than intended. Aivazovsky returned to Feodosia in 1838 and spent two
years in his native Crimea. In 1839, he took part in military exercises in the
shores of Crimea, where he met Russian admirals Mikhail Lazarev, Pavel Nakhimov and
First visit to Europe
In 1840, Aivazovsky was sent by the Imperial Academy of Arts to study in Europe.
He first traveled to Venice via Berlin and Vienna and visited San Lazzaro degli
Armeni, where an important Armenian Catholic congregation was located and his
brother Gabriel lived at the time. Aivazovsky studied Armenian manuscripts and
became familiar with Armenian art. He met Russian novelist Nikolai Gogol in Venice.
He then headed to Florence, Amalfi and Sorrento. In Florence, he met painter
Alexander Ivanov. He remained in Naples and Rome between 1840 and 1842. Aivazovsky
was heavily influenced by Italian art and their museums became the "second academy"
for him. "The echo of the success of his Italian exhibitions was even heard in
Russia." Pope Gregory XVI awarded him with a golden medal. He then visited
Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands and Britain, where he met English painter J.
M. W. Turner who, "was so struck by Aivazovsky's picture The Bay of Naples on a
Moonlit Night that he dedicated a rhymed eulogy in Italian to Aivazovsky." In an
international exhibition at the Louvre, he was the only representative from Russia.
In France, he received a gold medal from the Académie royale de peinture et de
sculpture. He then returned to Naples via Marseille and again visited Britain,
Portugal, Spain and Malta in 1843. Aivazovsky was admired throughout Europe. He
returned to Russia via Paris and Amsterdam in 1844.
Rise to prominence
In 1851, traveling with the Russian emperor Nicholas I, Aivazovsky sailed to
Sevastopol to participate in military maneuvers. His archaeological excavations
near Feodosia lead to his election as a full member of the Russian Geographical
Society in 1853. In that year, the Crimean War erupted between Russia and the
Ottoman Empire, and he was evacuated to Kharkiv. While safe, he returned to the
besieged fortress of Sevastopol to paint battle scenes. His work was exhibited in
Sevastopol while it was under Ottoman siege.
Between 1856 and 1857, Aivazovsky worked in Paris and became the first Russian
(and the first non-French) artist to receive the Legion of Honour. In 1857,
Aivazovsky visited Constantinople and was awarded the Order of the Medjidie. In the
same year he was elected an honorary member of the Moscow Art Society. He was
awarded the Greek Order of the Redeemer in 1859 and the Russian Order of St.
Vladimir in 1865.
Aivazovsky opened an art studio in Feodosia in 1865 and was awarded a salary by
the Imperial Academy of Arts the same year.
Travels and accolades: 1860s–1880s
In the 1860s, the artist produced several paintings inspired by Greek
nationalism and the Italian unification. In 1868, he once again visited
Constantinople and produced a series of works about the Greek resistance to the
Turks, during the Great Cretan Revolution. In 1868, Aivazovsky traveled in the
Caucasus and visited the Russian part of Armenia for the first time. He painted
several mountainous landscapes and in 1869 held an exhibition in Tiflis. Later in
the year, he made a trip to Egypt and took part in the opening ceremony of the Suez
Canal. He became the "first artist to paint the Suez Canal, thus marking an
epoch-making event in the history of Europe, Africa and Asia."
In 1870, Aivazovsky was made an Actual Civil Councilor, the fourth highest civil
rank in Russia. In 1871, he initiated the construction of the archaeological museum
in Feodosia. In 1872, he traveled to Nice and Florence to exhibit his paintings. In
1874, the Accademia di Belle Arti di Firenze (Florence Academy of Fine Art) asked
him for a self-portrait to be hung in the Uffizi Gallery. The same year, he
Aivazovsky was invited to Constantinople by Sultan Abdülaziz who subsequently
bestowed upon him the Turkish Order of Osmanieh. In 1876, he was made a member of
the Academy of Arts in Florence and became the second Russian artist (after Orest
Kiprensky) to paint a self-portrait for the Palazzo Pitti.
Aivazovsky was elected an honorary member of Stuttgart's Royal Academy of Fine
Arts (de) in 1878. He made a trip to the Netherlands and France, staying briefly in
Frankfurt until 1879. He then visited Munich and traveled to Genoa and Venice "to
collect material on the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus."
In 1880, Aivazovsky opened an art gallery in his Feodosia house; it became the
third museum in the Russian Empire, after the Hermitage Museum and the Tretyakov
Gallery. Aivazovsky held an 1881 exhibition at London's Pall Mall, attended by John
Everett Millais and Edward VII, Prince of Wales.
Aivazovsky the artist
During his sixty-year career, Aivazovsky produced around 6,000 paintings "of
very different value ... there are masterpieces and there are very timid works".
The vast majority of his works depict the sea. He rarely drew dry-landscapes and
created only a handful of portraits. Aivazovsky "never painted his pictures from
nature, always from memory, and far away from the seaboard." "His artistic memory
was legendary. He was able to reproduce what he had seen only for a very short
time, without even drawing preliminary sketches." His "truth to nature amazed his
contemporaries, particularly his ability to convey the effect of moving water and
of reflected sun and moonlight."
He held fifty-five solo exhibitions (an unprecedented number) over the course of
his career. Among the most notable were held in Rome, Naples and Venice (1841–42),
Paris (1843, 1890), Amsterdam (1844), Moscow (1848, 1851, 1886), Sevastopol (1854),
Tiflis (1868), Florence (1874), St. Petersburg (1875, 1877, 1886, 1891), Frankfurt
(1879), Stuttgart (1879), London (1881), Berlin (1885, 1890), Warsaw (1885),
Constantinople (1888), New York (1893), Chicago (1893), San Francisco (1893).
He also "contributed to the exhibitions of the Imperial Academy of Arts
(1836–1900), Paris Salon (1843, 1879), Society of Exhibitions of Works of Art
(1876–83), Moscow Society of Lovers of the Arts (1880), Pan-Russian Exhibitions in
Moscow (1882) and Nizhny Novgorod (1896), World Exhibitions in Paris (1855, 1867,
1878), London (1863), Munich (1879) and Chicago (1893) and the international
exhibitions in Philadelphia (1876), Munich (1879) and Berlin (1896)."
Aivazovsky's paintings at State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg
A primarily Romantic painter, Aivazovsky used some Realistic elements.
Aivazovsky "remained faithful to this movement [Romanticism] all his life, even
though he oriented his work toward the Realist genre." His early works are
influenced by his Academy of Arts teachers Maxim Vorobiev and Sylvester Shchedrin.
Classic painters like Salvator Rosa, Jacob Isaacksz van Ruisdael and Claude Lorrain
contributed to Aivazovsky's individual process and style. Karl Bryullov, best known
for his The Last Day of Pompeii, "played an important part in stimulating
Aivazovsky's own creative development".Aivazovsky's best paintings in the
1840s–1850s used a variety of colors and were both epic and romantic in theme.
"Towards the 1850s the romantic features in Aivazovsky’'s work became increasingly
pronounced." "His Ninth Wave, usually considered his masterpiece, seems to mark the
transition between fantastic color of his earlier works, and the more truthful
vision of the later years." By the 1870s, his paintings were dominated by delicate
colors; and in the last two decades of his life, Aivazovsky created a series of
The distinct transition in Russian art from Romanticism to Realism in the
mid-nineteenth century left Aivazovsky, who would always retain a Romantic style,
open to criticism. Proposed reasons for his unwillingness or inability to change
began with his location; Feodosia was a remote town in the huge Russian empire, far
from Moscow and Saint Petersburg. His mindset and worldview were similarly
considered old-fashioned, and did not correspond to the developments in Russian art
and culture. Vladimir Stasov only accepted his early works, while Alexandre Benois
wrote in his The History of Russian Painting in the 19th Century that despite he
was Vorobiev's student, Aivazovsky stood apart from the general development of the
Russian landscape school.
"Aivazovsky's mature work is usually on a large scale and contains dramatic
plots. During the later period in the artist's creativity, his favorite themes
depicted the romantic struggle between man and the elements in the form of the sea
(The Rainbow, 1873), and so-called "blue marines" (The Bay of Naples in Early
Morning, 1897, Disaster, 1898) and urban landscapes (Moonlit
Night on the Bosphorus, 1894)."
Ivan Aivazovsky is one of the few Russian artists to achieve wide recognition
during their lifetime. The Brockhaus and Efron Encyclopedic Dictionary explicitly
described him as the "best Russian marine painter" in 1890.
Today, he is considered as one of the most prominent marine artists of the 19th
century, and, overall, one of the greatest marine artists in Russia and the world.
He was also one of the few Russian artists to become famous outside Russia. In
1898, Munsey's Magazine wrote that Aivazovsky is "better known to the world at
large than any other artist of his nationality, with the exception of the
sensational Verestchagin". Although according to Janet Whitmore he is relatively
unknown in the west.
Ivan Kramskoi, one of the most prominent Russian artists of the nineteenth
century, praised him thus: "Aivazovsky is - no matter who says what - a star
of first magnitude, and not only in our country, but also in history of art in
general." Another Russian painter, Alexandre Benois, suggested that "Aivazovsky
stands apart from the general history of the Russian school of landscape painting."
The State Russian Museum website continues, "It is hard to find another figure in
the history of Russian art enjoying the same popularity among amateur viewers and
erudite professionals alike."
In nineteenth-century Russia, his name became a synonym for art and beauty. The
phrase "worthy of Aivazovsky's brush" was the standard way of describing something
ineffably lovely. It was first used by Anton Chekhov in his 1897 play Uncle Vanya.
In response to Marina Timofeevna's (the old nurse) query about the fight between
Ivan Voynitsky ("Uncle Vanya") and Aleksandr Serebryakov, Ilya Telegin says that it
was "A sight[c] worthy of Aivazovsky's brush".
Aivazovsky was the most influential seascape painter in nineteenth-century
Russian art. According to the Russian Museum, "he was the first and for a long time
the only representative of seascape painting" and "all other artists who painted
seascapes were either his own students or influenced by him."
Arkhip Kuindzhi (1841/2–1910) is cited as having been influenced by Aivazovsky.
In 1855, at age 13-14, Kuindzhi visited Feodosia to study with Aivazovsky, however,
he was engaged merely to mix paints and instead studied with Adolf Fessler,
Aivazovsky's student. A 1903 encyclopedic article stated: "Although Kuindzhi cannot
be called a student of Aivazovsky, the latter had without doubt some influence on
him in the first period of his activity; from whom he borrowed much in the manner
of painting." John E. Bowlt wrote that "the elemental sense of light and form
associated with Aivazovsky's sunsets, storms, and surging oceans permanently
influenced the young Kuindzhi."
Aivazovsky also influenced Russian painters Lev Lagorio, Mikhail Latri, and
Aleksey Ganzen (the last two were his grandsons).
Aivazovsky's paintings began appearing in auctions (mostly in London) in the
early 2000s. His works have risen steadily in auction value. Many of his works are
bought by Russian oligarchs. In 2004, his Saint Isaac's Cathedral On A Frosty
Day, a rare cityscape, unexpectedly sold for around £1 million ($1.9 million).
In 2007, his painting American Shipping
off the Rock of Gibraltar auctioned at £2.71 million, "more than four
times its top estimate". It was, "the highest price paid at auction for
Aivazovsky" at the time. In April 2012, a canvas belonging to the artist
View of Constantinople
and the Bosphorus (1856) was sold at Sotheby's for a record $5.2
million (£3.2 million), "well over its top estimate of £1.8m".
In June 2015 Sotheby's withdrew from auction an 1870 Aivazovsky painting
Evening in Cairo, which was estimated at £1.5–2 million ($2–$3 million),
after the Russian Interior Ministry claimed that it was stolen in 1997 from a
private collection in Moscow.