Two weeks ago, I went on a four-day city break to Moscow. I had always wanted to visit the Russian capital and especially visit the famous Tretyakov Gallery which houses the largest collection of Russian art in the world. I had read books about the wonders it had to offer and I knew I had to go and see it first-hand. Recently I wrote five blogs on the museum and the works of its leading proponents of portraiture, including Repin, Serov and Kramskoy but in the next few blogs I want to concentrate on lesser known artists (that is lesser known to me!) whose works also graced the walls of this outstanding Gallery.
As I have mentioned before, I live on the coast and a large number of paintings by local artists feature seascapes or marine paintings. My featured artist today is looked upon as one of the greatest maritime and seascape painters of all time and regarded as one of the most successful Russian painters of the 19th century. His work was admired by many seascape painters such as Turner. Let me introduce you to the Russian Romantic painter, Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky.
Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky was born on July 29th 1817. At his baptism at the local St. Sargis Armenian Apostolic Church, he was given the name of Hovhannes Aivazian. His father, Konstantin, was an impoverished Armenian merchant whose family originated from the Polish region of Galicia, a historical and geographic region between Central and Eastern Europe. In the early 1800’s Aivazosky’s father settled in the Black Sea port of Feodosia in the Crimea and it was here that he met a local girl, Ripsime, who later became his wife. They had five children, three daughters and two sons. Ivan’s elder brother, Gabriel, was to become an important historian and an Armenian Apostolic archbishop. Ivan began his education at Feodosia’s St. Sargis Armenian Church school and it was also during this period that he received his first tuition in art. His tutor was Jacob Koch, a local architect. In 1830, at the age of thirteen, he moved with the Taurida governor, Alexander Kaznacheyev’s family to Simferopol, the Crimean capital, where, through the good auspices of Jacob Koch, he was enrolled at the city’s Russian grammar school. Three years later, in 1833, having now established himself as a talented painter, sixteen-year-old Ivan transferred to the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts where he joined the class of the landscape painter, Maxim Vorobiov. He was a model student and progressed well. In 1835, he was awarded the silver medal for his painting Air over the Sea.
In 1836 the French artist Philippe Tanner arrived in St Petersburg to teach at the Academy and was immediately impressed by the talent of nineteen-year-old Ivan. Tanner’s forte was his marine paintings and during the time Aivazovsky worked as his assistant, he taught the young man marine painting techniques. In the autumn of 1836 Ivan had five of his works shown at art exhibitions, including his painting, The Roads at Kronstadt. Soon Ivan’s work was noticed and praised by both the press and the art critics alike.
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 and received the official title of artist. He left the St Petersburg Academy in 1838 to carry out a commission to paint views of several Crimean towns and to do this he moved back to his home town of Feodosia in the Crimea where he set up a shop and started painting vistas of the Crimea and his beloved Black Sea. He would paint en plein air carefully recording the elements and then return to his studio to put the finishing touches on his masterpieces. He remained in his homeland for two years.
In 1839 Ivan Aivazovsky was invited to participate in a Navy operation which was taking place off the Crimea shores. There he took part in military exercises off the shores of Crimea, and where he met prominent Russian admirals Mikhail Lazarev, Pavel Nakhimov and Vladimir Kornilov and soon a long friendship blossomed between the artist and the military men. His canvases depicting sea battles were remarkably true to fact and so full of accurate details that they are now considered as illustrations of naval attack tactics. One of his paintings depicting a naval battle was entitled The Landing at Subashi.
In 1840 the Imperial Academy of Arts of St Petersburg sent Aivazovsky to increase his knowledge in art by going and studying in Europe. His first stop-over was Venice which he reached after travelling through Berlin and Vienna. In Venice he went to San Lazzaro degli Armeni, a small island in the Venetian Lagoon which has been home to the monastery of the Mekhitarists, an Armenian Catholic congregation, since 1717. This was the home of Aivazovsky’s elder brother Gabriel.
Whilst here, Aivazovsky studied Armenian manuscripts and familiarised himself with Armenian art. From Venice he travelled across Italy and arrived in the Tuscan city of Florence and later took in the sights of Amalfi and Sorrento. He took up residence in Naples and stayed there until 1842. In that two year period in Italy, Aivazovsky fell in love with Italian art. Among the people he met whilst in Italy was the Ukranian-born Russian writer Gogol and the Russian Neoclassical painter Aleksandr Ivanov.
Aviazovsky returned to Russia in 1842 and he was given an official title within the General Naval Office. As such, he was allowed to join Russian research and science expeditions which travelled to Turkey, Greece, Egypt, America and Asia. From these journeys Aivazovsky was able to bring home hundreds of sketches which he later turned into his famous paintings.
He then visited Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands and Britain, where he met English painter J. M. W. Turner who, was so impressed by Aivazovsky’s painting, The Bay of Naples on a Moonlit Night that he dedicated a rhymed eulogy in Italian to Aivazovsky.
“…Like a curtain slowly drawn
It stops suddenly half open,
Or, like grief itself, filled with gentle hope,
It becomes lighter in the shore-less dark,
Thus the moon barely wanes
Winding her way above the storm-tossed sea.
Stand upon this hill and behold endlessly
This scene of a formidable sea,
And it will seem to thee a waking dream.
That secret mind flowing in thee
Which even the day cannot scatter,
The serenity of thinking and the beating of the heart
Will enchain thee in this vision;
This golden-silver moon
Standing lonely over the sea,
All curtain the grief of even the hopeless.
And it appears that through the tempest
Moves a light caressing wind,
While the sea swells up with a roar,
Sometimes, like a battlefield it looks to me
The tempestuous sea,
Where the moon itself is a brilliant golden crown
Of a great king.
But even that moon is always beneath thee
Oh Master most high,
Oh forgive thou me
If even this master was frightened for a moment
Oh, noble moment, by art betrayed…
And how may one not delight in thee,
Oh thou young boy, but forgive thou me,
If I shall bend my white head
Before thy art divine
Thy bliss-wrought genius…”
In 1845, Aivazovsky travelled to Istanbul upon the invitation of Sultan Abdülmecid. He would return to this Turkish city many times during his lifetime. He became court painter to the Ottoman Sultans Abdülmecid, Abdulaziz and Abdulhamid, and thirty of his commissioned works are still exhibited in the Ottoman Imperial Palace, the Dolmabahce Museum and many others at various other museums in Turkey. One of his paintings from this time was The Golden Horn. The Golden Horn is a horn-shaped estuary which divides the European side of Istanbul and is one of the best natural harbours in the world. The Byzantine and Ottoman navies and commercial shipping interests were centred here.
In the next part of my bog looking at the life and works of Ivan Aivazovsky I will be looking at his beautiful depictions of the ferocity of the sea and its devastating affect on the seagoing fraternity.