Progression of Art
Chaos (The Creation)
Though mawkish to a contemporary eye, Chaos (The Creation), painted in his early twenties when Aivazovsky was living in Rome, following his studies at the Imperial Academy in St. Petersburg, was acquired by Pope Gregory XVI who had it hung in the Vatican, despite controversy around its literalistic depiction of a divine presence. In this regard, Nikolai Gogol, the Russian-Ukrainian writer and friend of Aivazovsky wrote: "Your Chaos caused a chaos in the Vatican."
The chaos to which the title refers is, of course, that from which the Christian God created the world, depicted here as an act of commanding the natural elements to take form and submit to the divine presence. Whether mischievously pandering to literal-minded taste or reflecting the painter's own genuine belief, the painting was something of a blockbuster hit for the ambitious young man doing his European tour and proved to Aivazovsky that the sublime sells in the right context.
The lower half of the painting shows early signs of Aivazovsky's extraordinary technical competence in painting stormy seas. In Chaos (The Creation), the upper half of the painting suggests a painter still trying to decide what to do with that competence, with his own God-like command of his materials, and whether his attachment to Romanticism required a glorification of something more than nature's own powers.
Oil on Canvas
The Ninth Wave
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.
Oil on Canvas - State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg
English novelist Virginia Woolf referred to Dostoyevsky's novels as "seething whirlpools ... waterspouts which hiss and spout and suck us in". It is perhaps no coincidence then that Dostoyevsky loved this painting, seeing in it the thrill "that startles a spectator in a real-life storm." With this work, Dostoevsky claimed that Aivazovsky became a "master who has no competition." Woolf's contemporary, the writer Rosa Newmarch, traveled extensively in Russia, immersed herself in its art and culture, and wrote of Aivazovsky's "truthful vision" in paintings such as The Rainbow.
The painting portrays survivors tossed in a tempestuous sea, as their ship sinks in the background after a wild storm. The colors of the atmosphere and of the ocean are muted and use a soft subdued palette of white, pink, purple and light blue; shifting in subtle shades, they seem to morph and blend, creating a mood of windswept resignation in sharp contrast with the over-stated melodrama of The Ninth Wave from two decades earlier. An almost imperceptible rainbow tinges the clarity that seeps across the sky from the right.
There is a whirlpool effect to the painting as a whole, its swirl of spray, clouds, and sea insistently drawing the eye away from the softly defined periphery and into the space between men and ship, where it feels as if the storm may be starting to pass, sweeping away to the left of the scene. The thrill that Dostoyevsky detected is the thrill of the storm's power but also of how the faint emergence of the rainbow hints at its passing. The pathos of the ship's loss gives way in the instant to our recognition of the complex thrill that the sailors would be feeling. Such moments of startled feeling are perhaps what Newmarch meant by a "truthful vision" in Aivazovsky's best work.
Oil on Canvas - The Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia
The Black Sea
It is instructive to compare The Black Sea with the French tradition of seascape painting that Aivazovsky was linked to through Philippe Tanneur and which included paintings by Géricault such as The Storm (or The Shipwreck). Aivazovsky's technique was undoubtedly shaped early on by Tanneur's and the latter's Steamer Off Dover resembles The Black Sea in its foregrounding of rolling waves with spume-fringed crests. But Tanneur's water is always more like Géricault's, sculpted and frozen in time. As his own technique outstripped his early teacher's, Aivazovsky was able to capture a greater sense of motion, as if the French painters' attention to surface detail got in the way of their communicating fluidity and depth.
In The Black Sea that depth is unmediated by the presence of boats or human figures (the only vessel is on the horizon), and the painting's striking achievement is in refusing us the distance that those mediating presences usually afford. Instead we are virtually in the water. It roils around us and the impression of motion is irresistible. The water has a labile density instead of a sculpted surface. Aivazovsky's characteristic lightness of touch in the sky makes it pellucid, which adds to the density and depth of the water, where Géricault's and Tanneur's skies always competed with their seas.
The Black Sea would be followed by Stormy Coastline in 1882, A Heavy Sea in 1889, and The Waves in 1898, a quartet of extraordinary paintings devoid of Aivazovsky's otherwise characteristic attachment to the pathos of the distressed at sea or the sublimity of light glowing through darkness. Those were tropes of his marketable output but he could go beyond them at times to produce paintings of enduring physicality and power like this one.
Oil on Canvas - The Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow
Descent of Noah from Ararat
Throughout his career, Aivazovsky was increasingly subject to criticism from advocates of a realist style being developed by a younger generation of Russian artists, at the forefront of whom was Ilya Yefimovich Repin, awarded the title of academician in 1876, by which time Aivazovsky's success was well established. Repin, however, represented a growing social conscience among some Russian artists. Contrasting Repin's famous painting Barge Haulers on the Volga (1870-73) with Descent of Noah from Ararat reveals not only their temperamental differences but also why Aivazovsky's work represented a conservativism that Repin and others actively opposed. Repin's barge haulers are real peasants in a Russian landscape of unsentimental solidity. The people in Aivazovsky's painting are not just Biblical figures, they are Aivazovsky's dreamy imagining of his own romanticized Armenian roots combined with a vaguely conceived Orientalism that looked towards an old Constantinople and beyond for a sense of uncorrupted identity. While Repin's generation looked for a new identity, and a new artistic realism ethically attuned to social realities in a changing Russia, Aivazovsky produced hundreds of paintings like this, which sought to escape from those uncertain realities into a world of mythical certainties, for which Biblical symbolism was a convenient vehicle.
The illusion that Aivazovsky creates here, around the Old Testament story of Noah and his family leading the animals down from the postdiluvian resting place of their ark, is of a shared past sustained by supposedly timeless truths and uncorrupted by the prospect of radical human dissent from those truths. This implied message would have been reassuring to many of Aivazovsky's admirers at the time but anathema to those, like Repin, who believed that art's responsibility in Russia was increasingly to question, not reassure.
Oil on Canvas
The Wave interrupts a sequence of vacant and powerfully physical seascapes that began with The Black Sea in 1881 and ended with The Waves in 1898. This version differs in that it returns to Aivazovsky's old theme of the shipwrecked mariners, but it differs too from all the earlier variants on that theme because of its abandonment of hope.
There is no sunlight breaking through here, no rainbow, nothing to pray to, no sense of the storm abating and life clinging on with some prospect of rescue. If anything, the wave here seems about to bring a certain end to life. Even Aivazovsky's sky is different, no longer a thin wash but almost an angry continuation of the ocean, closing in on the scene of hopelessness. Where there was typically pathos in the desperation of Aivazovsky's many storm-tossed sailors, because they clung on with some slender prospect of surviving, here the human seems foolhardy and doomed, the vision entirely unsentimental.
What we see in Aivazovsky's late seascapes is his favorite subject - the sea itself - reclaiming its elemental power. The painter's own energetic engagement with the painted surface seems to have marked these late seascapes with a physical intensity that contrasts with his pale, romanticized evocations of old lands and picturesque shores.
Oil on Canvas