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Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Alexander Ivanov's Twenty-Year Painting

The Appearance of Christ before the People,
1837-57, Andrei Ivanov.
What's the longest you ever worked on a single painting? Several days? Several weeks? Several months? Even if you've answered several years, you probably couldn't match the record set by the Russian painter, Alexander Ivanov. If you're wondering which painting and what it looked like, look just above. The painting is titled The Appearance of Christ before the People. The next question that comes to mind is, "Why?" Why did it take him twenty years to paint his masterpiece? Well, it is, after all, a BIG painting, 25 ft. x 17.5 ft. (750 cm x 540 cm) some 437 sq. ft. of canvas. But dozens of other artist of Ivanov's ilk have painted larger expanses in less than one-tenth the time, so the size is, in fact, a minor consideration.

A preliminary oil sketch for The Appearance of Christ before the People.
No, the real reason the painting took so long comes down to an rare human attribute I first noticed in teaching high school art many years ago. It doesn't occur very often (thank God) but it boils down to the fact that some artists give perfection a bad name. That is, they begin a piece of work and then find it difficult (or impossible) to declare it "finished." I've always proclaimed that the antidote for this perfectionist mindset resides in the fact that some "errors" are too major to fix and not major enough to worry about.

Noli Me Tangere, Appearance of Jesus Christ to Mary Magdalene, 1835, Alexander Ivanov, which predates his
The Appearance of Christ before the People.
That was Alexander Ivanov "major malfunction." He was an excellent painting technician with touches of brilliance from time to time, as in his Noli Me Tangere (above). He'd literally been an artist almost from the day he was born in 1806 into a St. Petersburg family of artists. He began his studies under his father, the painter Andrei Ivanovich Ivanov until he was about eleven when he was enrolled in the Imperial Academy. If the name Alexander Ivanov sounds familiar it's because about three years ago I wrote a biographical item on this artist. And although I featured Appearance of Christ before the People quite prominently, I wrote hardly a word regarding the painting itself.
Ivanov's oil sketches are, in some ways, more intriguing than his finished painting, which tends to be overworked.
Going hand in hand with Ivanov's perfectionist tendencies, was the fact that he was quite thorough in his preparatory research (taken mostly from the third chapter of the Gospel of Matthew and the first chapter of John), though that was likely just a starting point. From there he moved on the preparatory sketches for each of the more than two dozen figures in his final painting. Moreover, many of these figures (mostly just the heads) were rendered in oil. In all there were more than three-hundred. The painting was painted entirely during Ivanov's time living in Rome from the mid-1830s until 1858 when he returned to St. Petersburg with his massive masterpiece in tow.
Although the face of Christ is strong and loving, it seems to lack the character to be found in Ivanov's other faces such as that of John the Baptist, as if he felt restrained by conventional depictions of the time.
The central figure in Ivanov's Appearance of Christ is not Christ but John the Baptist (whom Ivanov seems to imagine baptized his followers in the nude). Though the artist made preliminary oil studies of both Christ and John, the figure of Christ is so reduced by the depth of field as to be nearly unrecognizable. One might come to the conclusion that the lengthy act of painting his one and only career masterpiece was, in fact, as important to him as the finished work itself.

The Appearance of Christ before the People as seen today in Moscow's Tretyakov Museum.
And what was the reaction, after twenty years of seemingly endless work on his masterpiece. One can almost imagine, opening night, when the painting was first shown, the artist waiting far to one side watching the faces and listening to the impressions of those seeing it for the first time. The best one could say was that the reaction was lukewarm. Ivanov was a neoclassical artist. The problem was, the art world had passed him by. Ivanov's magnum opus was already twenty years out of style before it was ever displayed. Today however, critical judgements have mellowed. Painting styles have leveled in importance. Some of the numerous sketches Ivanov prepared for The Appearance have been recognized as masterpieces in their own right. The most comprehensive collection of his works can be viewed at the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg. Alexander Ivanov died of cholera a few months after he and his work returned to Russia. He was fifty-two. Years later, long after his death, Ivanov's painting would be hailed, by no less than the famed Russian artist, Ilya Repin, as "the greatest work in the whole world, by a genius born in Russia”.

Preliminary oil studies for The Appearance
of Christ before the People, Alexander Ivanov.


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