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Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Ivan Aivazovsky

The Ninth Wave, 1850, Ivan Aivazovsky, considered his greatest masterpiece marking a
mid-career change of focus from stunningly colorful marine sunsets (sunrises) to a
              naturalized handling of color characterizing the final fifty years of his life.
Ivan Aivazovsky Self-portrait, 1874
Sometimes I get to feeling pretty smug about my work. Over the course of the past forty years or so I've created hundreds of paintings and hundreds more pencil portraits. I wish I knew the exact numbers of each. Someday, when I'm so old and infirm that I can do little else, I may try creating my own catalogue raisonné, only because I'm about the only one who could complete such a task, not to mention the fact, I'm probably the only one who would...go to the bother, that is. Supposedly such an annotated list tends to improve the value of an artist's work once he or she is dead. It also serves to reduce the likelihood of fakes, though in my case, that's highly unlikely. From what I've gathered over the years, most painters can list several hundred works, approaching, perhaps, but seldom exceeding a thousand. Imagine then, a painter so prolific his catalogue raisonne includes some six-thousand paintings completed over a lifetime of eighty-three years. Moreover I'm not talking about simple, modest, little wall decorations of two or three square feet, but sizable canvases of twenty square feet or more. He was Russian, born in 1817, a painter almost exclusively of seascapes, named Ivan Aivazovsky.
The Azure Grotto, Naples, 1841, Ivan Aivazovsky
Byron in Venice, 1842, Ivan Aivazovsky
The only word that comes to mind in viewing Aivazovsky's work is "stunning." Never was the sea more beautiful, more powerful, more dangerous, or more mysterious looking than the images on Aivazovsky's impressive canvases. I become quite skeptical when I see superlatives attached to any artist or their work, but there seems to be general agreement that Ivan Aivazovsky was the greatest marine artist who ever lived (certainly the most prolific, anyway). Ethnically, Aivazovsky was Armenian, born in the Black Sea port of Feodosia located on the southern coast of the Crimean peninsula. Thus he grew up almost literally on the sea. He studied at the Imperial Academy of Arts followed by couple years living, studying, and working in Italy--mostly Venice and Naples. In returning too Russia in the mid-1840s he became the main painter of the Russian Navy. At the same time, sponsored by the imperial family, Aivazovsky maintained an international following with exhibitions of his work all over Europe and as far away as the United States.

 The Great rRoads at Kronstadt, 1836, Ivan Aivazovsky, age 19.
Calm Morning near Vico (detail),
1841, Ivan Aivazovsky
While still at the Imperial Academy, Aivazovsky won numerous medals and awards bringing him to the attention of major painters and poets (such as Alexander Pushkin) and at the same time gaining him entry into the battle-painting class of Russian artist, Alexander Sauerweid, where he was able to observe training maneuvers of the Russian Baltic fleet. He even managed to graduate from the academy two years ahead of his class. Fresh from his schooling, Aibazovsky's reputation as a painter was such that he had access to several Imperial naval commanders associated with the Black Sea fleet as well. His achievements at the Imperial Academy allowed him to study for varying lengths of time in England, France, the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, and Malta in addition to his time in Italy. His painting, Byron in Venice (above, right) dates from this period and is similar to other much-admired works he did of the Bay of Naples.

The Creation of the World, 1864,
Ivan Aivazovsky--one of a series. (He must
have paid a visit to the Sistine Chapel.)
Althoug Aivazovky's early work was quite precocious, his use of color and various atmospherics came pretty much from the realm of fantasy or "by-the-book" formulas he'd encountered in the work of other artists. Perhaps they were so popular because of this trait. In any case, Aivazovsky's greatest masterpiece came about 1850, The Ninth Wave (top) depicting a group of shipwreck survivors clinging to a bit of floating wreckage amid towering waves and a setting sun. It was his first attempt to deal with tragedy at sea and likewise his first time tackling natural lighting. From that point on, his seascapes took on an almost photographic verisimilitude that set him far apart from other marine artists of his time.

Russian-Turkish Sea Battle of Sinop, 1853, Ivan Aivzovsky
Icebergs in Antarctica, 1870, Ivan Aivazovsky.
He traveled a lot, but there's no record 
of his ever reaching Antarctica.
Actually it set him too far apart. Romanticism, especially in Russia, was giving way to a peculiar sort of Russian Realism. Aivazovsky built himself a spacious new house in Feodosia then shut himself up in it to paint and pout. He had risen to the top of the Russian art world only to find himself having to ride out the winds of change like one of his storm-tossed ships, Aivazovsky might well have remained an artist recluse the rest of his life except for one now all but forgotten little dust up between Russia and Turkey--the 1853 Crimean War. Though Aivazovsky and his family were evacuated from the coast, he returned to paint battle scenes such as the Russian-Turkish Sea Battle of Sinop (above). The war went on for three years and Russia lost to an alliance of France, Britain, and Turkey.

Exploding Ship, 1900, Ivan Aivazovsky, possibly his final painting.
Caravan Oasis, Egypt, 1871,  Ivan Aivazovsky
Following the war, Aivazovsky once more traveled broadly over much of Europe and, as a high-ranking Russian civilian official, visiting Constantinople, Florence, Frankfurt, Saint Petersburg, and Egypt where in 1869 he was present at the opening of the Suez Canal, becoming the first artist to paint that waterway. In 1892, still hale and hardy at the age of seventy-five, Aivazovsky and his second wife made a trip to the United States as a tourists, apparently mostly to see Niagara Falls with side trips to visit New York and Washington, D.C. The famed, highly decorated Russian artist returned to his home in Theodosia where his final years were some of the most productive of his life, though by that time his painting efforts had fallen off somewhat. He is credited with opening the third art museum in Russia (after the Hermitage and the Tretyakov), started an art school, founded a natural history museum, and constructing a water system for the town fed by wells on his estate. He was also instrumental in establishing a port at Feodosia and railway links to the rest of Russia. Aivazovsky died in 1900 at the age of eighty-three, having become quite possibly the most decorated painter in the history of Russia.

Ivan Aivazovsky's home in Theodosia is now a museum dedicated to his work.


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