Ivan Aivazovsky (1817-1900) was a Russian painter of Armenian descent considered to be among the most important landscape and marine painters in history.
Whilst his early landscapes were of his native Crimean countryside, his later works and the majority of his 6000 paintings consist of near Apocalyptic seascapes and coastal scenes, from battleships in flames to ordinary people and soldiers fighting for their lives amidst storms and battles.
Aivazovsky’s name is synonymous with the Black Sea. He knew it well and had an innate grasp of its aesthetic and movements. Each painting is more than a mere representation of the sea. The viewer feels compelled to immerse him or herself in the story, the same story told in a different and innovative way each time: that of the inevitable dichotomy of man’s struggle against, and love of nature in its entirety.
Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote about his favourite work “The Rainbow”:
“This storm by Aivazovsky is fabulous, like all of his storm pictures, and here he is the master who has no competition. In his storms there is the trill, the eternal beauty that startles a spectator in a real life storm.”
Ivan Aivazovsky was a Romantic painter in the true 19th Century manner. Wild and fanciful, his paintings convey a continuum between the sea and sky, so much so that it creates an almost digital 3D effect while retaining its original beauty and congruity, owing to Aivazovsky’s meticulous use of light, colour and contrast. Through his immense skill and imagination, he was able to elicit the splendour of nature in all its prismatic forms. The sky, rather than serve as an ambience to the sea and the objects in it, becomes an integral part of the composition which gives each work a momentum and a hauntingly timeless appeal. His attention to light and colour is none the more evident than in his most famous work “The Ninth Wave" completed in 1850. The allure of the painting lies precisely in its momentum, its visual and subliminal dissonance and irony: dawn breaks after a night storm and a small group of shipwrecked people desperately cling on to life by holding on to what appears to be a mast. The sharp sun light composed of a lively orange-yellow sky softens the menacing overtones of the sea and allows for a glimmer of hope, despite death being imminent. Aivazovsky was familiar with the songs of the medieval poets glorifying light in the Armenian churches, and thus to him Light was an eternal symbol of life, love and faith.
Born into an impoverished Armenian family in the ancient Crimean town of Theodosia on the shores of the Black Sea, his talent was noted early on by a local architect who encouraged him to enter the gymnasium at Simferopol and in 1833, the St Petersburg Academy of Arts. In October 1837 Aivazovsky completed his studies at the Academy and in 1940 travelled to Rome to further his studies.
Despite his less than privileged background, Aivazovsky was a man of impeccable manners and with a grasp on the realities of life. He felt a great deal of empathy for humanity and particularly for those less fortunate than him and enjoyed tremendous respect from ordinary people to ruling figures. He spent much of his wealth on the welfare of his hometown and in 1865 he opened a painting school in Feodosia followed by an art gallery in 1880. He became a member of five European Academies and was awarded the medal of the french Legion of Honour. Delacroix admired him and L.M.W Turner dedicated a poem to his genius.
After the Russo-Persian war, Eastern Armenia came under the Russian rule. Western Armenia was still under the Turkish rule. In 1895 Sultan Abdul Hamid ordered a series of massacres which claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Armenians. Countless Armenian cultural monuments were destroyed. In an act of defiance, Aivazovsky threw the medal that the Sultan had bestowed on him into the sea. He painted and exhibited works depicting the massacres, the most powerful example being "The Explosion of the Turkish Ship" which was sadly left unfinished.
Aivazovsky died on May 5, 1900, in Theodora.