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Ivan Aivazovsky – the painter of the sea

Ivan Aivazovsky – the painter of the sea

Article by Vladimir London, Drawing Academy tutor

Ivan AivazovskyIvan Aivazovsky (Ива́н Айвазо́вский), born July 17, 1817 in Feodosia, Crimea. Most famous for his seascapes, he started life the son of a poor Armenian merchant. His artistic talents were recognized early in life when he became apprentice to a local architect, Jacob Koch. He soon moved to Simferopol to attend the local gymnasium, and eventually attended the prestigious Imperial Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg. Aivazovsky excelled at the Academy, winning medals and honing his craft under the French marine painter Philippe Tanneur.

Having earned the title of “artist” from the Academy, he returned to his native Feodosia. He continued to practice his craft, painting seascapes around Crimea, and developed his ever-growing international reputation. In 1839, he participated in naval exercises, where he not only distinguished himself for bravery and made the acquaintanceship of several notable Russian admirals, but developed an interest in another theme that would come to characterize his artwork: battles paintings.

In 1840, Aivazovsky embarked on his first tour of Western Europe. There, he was showered with accolades, and returned to Russia four years later as one of the most notable artists in Europe. He was made a member of the Imperial Academy of Arts and became an official painter for the Russian navy, allowing him to continue work all over the world on the seascapes that so characterize his art.

He returned to his native Feodosia in 1846 and retreated to his home and studio, where he devoted himself for the next several years to painting the seascapes of his homeland. Given the skill honed over so many years and so much experience, he found himself able to create grand paintings from his own imagination in a minimum of time, needing less and less actual observation to accomplish his works. In Aivazovsky’s own words, “The artist who only copies nature becomes a slave to nature…the plot of the pictures is composed in my memory, like that of a poet.”

Although his time in Feodosia was peaceful, Aivazovsky was hardly idle. He painted constantly, almost exclusively from memory or imagination, often wowing guests with the speed with which he could produce great works. When the Crimean War broke out between Russia and the Ottoman Empire, he was evacuated, but soon returned to the fortress of Sevastopol to paint battle scenes. He continued to travel, gathering honors and acclaim wherever he went in Europe.

As an artist, Aivazovsky was one of the most prolific of his time, or indeed any time. He painted over 6,000 works of art, the majority of them seascapes. For his entire life he adhered to the Romantic style, a dramatic and emotive type of painting, even when the art world’s sensibilities began to shift towards realism. Nevertheless, his skill was always highly regarded. Dostoevsky adored The Rainbow, a painting depicting a group of sailors in a lifeboat, rowing away from their capsizing ship in a lifeboat, the faint halo of a rainbow overarching both vessels; the author went so far as to call Aivazovsky, “the master who has no competition.”

By far his most famous work, The Ninth Wave depicts a group of shipwrecked men, clinging to a shattered mast on the open sea, as the titular wave prepares to crash down upon them.

Ivan Aivazovsky - The Ninth Wave, 1850

Ivan Aivazovsky – The Ninth Wave, 1850

The dire circumstances of the sailors are juxtaposed with the hopeful beauty of a golden dawn breaking over the scene, creating a dynamic contrast and a thoughtful piece that well deserves its place in history.

In the waning years of his life, Aivazovsky spent most of his time in Feodosia, painting his familiar scenes and experimenting with different subjects. He tried his hand at portraiture, although these never reached the level of his seascapes. Even so, the variety of his work is impressive. The Wedding in Ukraine admirably depicts a cheerful domestic scene of a village wedding, a marked departure from his normal works.

Ivan Aivazovsky - The Wedding in Ukraine

Ivan Aivazovsky – The Wedding in Ukraine

To this period also dates what is widely considered his greatest achievement. Among the Waves features a sea in turmoil, an inky black thunderstorm raging overhead. No ships or human artifacts are used to create drama in this scene; instead, the dynamism of a turbulent ocean creates the emotion, highlighted by a single beam of light breaking through the clouds, casting a ghostly spotlight upon nature.

Throughout his life, his thoughts always returned to his Armenian heritage and his hometown, to which he often turned a philanthropic eye. Over the years, he supplied Feodosia with water, created an art school, built an art gallery, and helped develop the local economy. He died on April 19, 1900, at age 82.

Ivan Aivazovsky

Ivan Aivazovsky

Ivan Aivazovsky

Ivan Aivazovsky

Ivan Aivazovsky

Ivan Aivazovsky

Ivan Aivazovsky

Ivan Aivazovsky

Ivan Aivazovsky

Ivan Aivazovsky

Ivan Aivazovsky

Ivan Aivazovsky

Ivan Aivazovsky

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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Ron says:

    Incredible work. His colours are gorgeous, almost verging on the borderline of impressionism. If I could raise my paintings to his level of colour use I will be most pleased.

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