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Artists Ivan Aivazovsky
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Ivan Aivazovsky

Russian Painter

Movement: Romanticism

Born: July 29, 1817 - Theodosia, Ukraine

Died: May 2, 1900 - Theodosia, Ukraine

Ivan Aivazovsky Timeline

Quotes

"Every victory of our forces, whether at sea or on dry land, makes me happy as a Russian, and as an artist gives me the impulse to paint it."
Ivan Aivazovsky
"Even in deep old age I still have a strong passion within me and I work constantly."
Ivan Aivazovsky

"The movement of natural elements cannot be captured by the brush: to paint lightning, a gust of wind, or the splash of a wave from nature is inconceivable."

Ivan Aivazovsky Signature

Synopsis

Over half of Ivan Aivazovsky's some 6,000 paintings are maritime subjects and of these the most enduringly powerful are his turbulent seascapes that made him the success of the late Russian Empire. However, as momentum for change grew in late-19th-century Russia, Aivazovsky's technical prowess and prolific output remained tied to his successful formula. His attachment to Romanticism remained especially apparent in his paintings of storm-tossed vessels dwarfed by natural grandeur, while his patriotic attachment to the Russia of old remained apparent in his paintings of naval victories. A younger generation of Russian artists, who engaged more creatively with a changing world, quickly eclipsed Aivazovsky in importance, but the market for his work remains buoyant to this day and his best seascapes still communicate a raw energy.

Key Ideas

Aivazovsky was one of the last great academicians in the Russian art world, a product of the network of European academies, a Westernizer due to his travels around Europe's artistic capitals, a favorite of the Imperial family, but increasingly out of step with reformers calling for a more socially responsive and authentically Russian art.
Aivazovsky can best be understood as the artistic boy from a poor background in a Black Sea port who found that well-connected patrons could transport him to the glittering world of St. Petersburg, from where he returned to his home town a success and a celebrity. When the Black Sea erupts through the well-mannered surfaces of his paintings, as it occasionally does, the polite salons of St. Petersburg seem to give way to the Armenian boy's awe before elemental forces.
An extraordinarily fast and prolific painter, often on a grand scale, Aivazovsky at his best injected the energy of late Romanticism into scenes that were otherwise coldly accomplished in their self-conscious grandeur and striving for pathos. Some of his late seascapes embody this energy in a less mannered way and the physical expressiveness of these painted surfaces still speaks to a more modern interest in the materiality of painting.
A young Aivazovsky and the elderly English painter J. M. W. Turner met when they were both visiting Rome. They admired each other's work and both painted the sea with an expressive turbulence. However, a fellow member of the Royal Academy in London could still deride Turner's late paintings as "blots" whereas Aivazovsky's early work was garnering acclaim for its classical virtues. Today, we might wish that Aivazovsky had learnt more from Turner, whose "blots" stand as triumphantly experimental precursors of a modern vision whereas Aivazovsky's body of work demonstrates how traditional virtues in painting can constrain that vision if applied too conservatively.

Most Important Art

Ivan Aivazovsky Famous Art

The Ninth Wave (1850)

The Ninth Wave, usually cited as Aivazovsky's most famous work, is a huge painting of nearly 11 feet (3.3 meters) by 7 feet (2.2 meters), which portrays a group of people clinging to flotsam from a wrecked ship, in the midst of a tempestuous sea surrounded by the brilliant gold tones of the sunrise. The title refers to a traditional nautical belief that the ninth wave is the last, largest and most deadly wave in a series, at which point the cycle begins again. Painted when Aivazovsky was 33 years old, it is characteristic of his mature Romanticism in technique, theme and populist appeal.

The Christian message is less explicit, being confined to the cross-like form of the mast and the pleading attitude of the unfortunates clinging to it, as they look to the rising sun just before the big wave strikes. Displaying the classical academic discipline of composition and palette that Aivazovsky had been taught and then observed in the galleries and salons of the European capitals, The Ninth Wave has all the melodrama of Aivazovsky at his most febrile and all the grandeur of his most strident efforts to impress. The epic quality, which according to Russophile writer and poet Rosa Newmarch, in her perceptive early comments about his work, had become "increasingly pronounced" by this point, did not yet consistently offer the more "truthful vision" of which she found Aivazovsky to be capable.
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Ivan Aivazovsky Artworks in Focus:

Biography

Childhood

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

Self-portrait (c. 1830-1840)
Self-portrait (c. 1830-1840)

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.

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Ivan Aivazovsky Biography Continues

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.

Mature Period

Portrait of Ivan Aivazovsky by Alexey Tyranov (1841)
Portrait of Ivan Aivazovsky by Alexey Tyranov (1841)

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.

Ivan Aivazovsky's Self-portrait (1874)
Ivan Aivazovsky's Self-portrait (1874)

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.

Ivan Aivazovsky with his wife and four daughters, (c. 1870-1877)
Ivan Aivazovsky with his wife and four daughters, (c. 1870-1877)

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.


Legacy

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.

Ivan Aivazovsky (1890s)
Ivan Aivazovsky (1890s)

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.

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Artists, Friends, Movements
Influenced by Artist
Artists, Friends, Movements
Ivan Aivazovsky
Interactive chart with Ivan Aivazovsky's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
View Influences Chart

Artists

Salvator Rosa
Claude LorrainClaude Lorrain
Paul Delaroche
Philippe Tanneur
Theodore GericaultTheodore Gericault

Personal Contacts

Movements

ClassicismClassicism
RomanticismRomanticism

Influences on Artist
Ivan Aivazovsky
Ivan Aivazovsky
Years Worked: 1833 - 1900
Influenced by Artist

Artists

Arkhip Kuindzhi
Lev Lagorio
Mihhail Latri
Cai Guo-QiangCai Guo-Qiang

Personal Contacts

Movements

RomanticismRomanticism

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Cite this page

Content compiled and written by Sarah Frances Dias

Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Daniel Xavier Fleming

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Sarah Frances Dias
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Daniel Xavier Fleming
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Useful Resources on Ivan Aivazovsky

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Articles

The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.
Light, Water and Sky: The Paintings of Ivan Aivazovsky Recomended resource

By Gianni Caffiero and Ivan Samarine

Ivan Aivazovsky: Colour Plates

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Aivazovsky

By Valeriy Pilipenko

More Interesting Books about Ivan Aivazovsky
Ivan Aivazovsky's Seascapes on Display at Moscow's Tretyakov Gallery

The Moscow Times
August, 2016

The Many Faces of Ivan Aivazovsky

By Lyudmila Markina
The Tretyakov Gallery Magazine
January, 2017

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