Brig “Mercury” after a Victory over Two Turkish Ships, 1848
Art,  Artist,  English

Ivan Aivazovsky and the Russian Painters of Water

The text below is the excerpt of the book Ivan Aivazovsky and the Russian Painters of Water (ISBN: 9781783102969), written by Victoria Charles, published by Parkstone International.

Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky has been one of Russia’s most popular artists for over a hundred years, enjoying greater fame in his youth than most artists do in a lifetime. He was well-known amongst artists and the general public who adored his talent, and his celebrity spread quite quickly.

Near the start of his artistic career he was elected to various foreign academies and even had the honour of having his self-portrait displayed in the Pitti Gallery in Florence, only the second Russian artist to have been bestowed this honour after Orest Kiprensky.

Self-portrait, 1892, Ivan Aivazovsky and the Russian Painters of Water
Self-portrait, 1892. Oil on canvas, 225 x 157 cm. Aivazovsky National Art Gallery, Feodosia.

Aivazovsky’s achievements were well-deserved as no other artists managed to encompass the most difficult of subjects, the changing ambience of the sea, with such intensity and precision.

However Aivazovsky was not merely a professional seascape painter. He understood and loved the sea but it did not limit him to only seascapes. If he tried his hand at other subjects, such as landscapes or portraits, they were but a brief escape from the sea to which he devoted his life.

Seascape painters divide themselves into three categories: those who live by the sea with the preoccupation of accurately relaying what they see before them; those who live by the beach a couple of months a year and copy moments or incidents which strike them from the shore or the harbour; and finally, the landscapists that haphazardly paint the sea or make use of it to add to a painting, giving it a bit of depth.

The Frigate “Aurora”, 1837, Ivan Aivazovsky and the Russian Painters of Water
The Frigate “Aurora”, 1837. Oil on canvas, 75 x 101 cm. Private collection.

Seascape painters have become rarer, because paintings of the sea are unrewarding. Amateur collectors do not often seek out seascape paintings and it is only when an artist acquires some celebrity in this genre that they buy their work so that their name will be present in their collection; the subject rarely influencing the buyer. Admirers of the sea are primarily found in little groups of poets, writers, and sailors.

The education of a seascape painter is one of the toughest and most difficult. To paint the sea, one must have sailed in all the seasons, passed days and weeks at sea, studied the sky and the water, and when all the necessary documents are acquired, back in the studio, be able to execute credible works of art.

One must also know how to put a boat in water: how many paintings are there where the boat, cut off by the line of the sea, looks like a child’s toy placed on a mirror that reflects it, because the water does not wet it and it is not in the water, it is simply placed on top.

Shipping off the Dutch Coast, 1844, Ivan Aivazovsky and the Russian Painters of Water
Shipping off the Dutch Coast, 1844. Oil on canvas, 55.5 x 83.7 cm. Private Collection.

It is also difficult to really grasp the anatomy of the waves and render them in their coming-and-going movement, to represent the cliffs in their picturesque forms, in their geological structure. An infinite list of these types of observations could be made.

Depicting the open sea in good or bad weather is more difficult than to paint the picturesque beaches on which we can see the world of elegant people going about their lives, sailors, shrimp fisherwomen, pretty women easy on the eye. The first paintings require a great deal of effort; the second ones come much more easily.

In short, it is only in living the life of the people of the sea that a maritime painter learns their trade and can really examine this forever changing model that we call the ocean.

Battle of Chesma at Night, 1848, Ivan Aivazovsky and the Russian Painters of Water
Battle of Chesma at Night, 1848. Oil on canvas, 195 x 185 cm. Aivazovsky National Art Gallery, Feodosia.

Aivazovsky’s artistic career began in Russia at the time when Romanticism was in full swing and played an important role in the development of landscape art during the second half of the 19th century. Romanticism is present not only in his early works but in a large majority of his later canvases. Shipwrecks, fierce naval combats, and storms remained his favoured themes.

In keeping with the great Russian landscape artists from the start of the 19th century, and without ever imitating anyone, Aivazovsky created his own school and his own traditions which distinctly mark the maritime genre as of his time and of future generations. In his works we can also remark upon the apparent traits of Armenian culture as he remained loyal to his people and country for the duration of his life…

The featured artworks of Ivan Aivazovsky:

Storm at Sea, 1847, Ivan Aivazovsky and the Russian Painters of Water
Storm at Sea, 1847. Oil on canvas, 53 x 44 cm. The State Museum “Pavlovsk”, St Petersburg.
Brig “Mercury” after a Victory over Two Turkish Ships, 1848
Brig “Mercury” after a Victory over Two Turkish Ships, 1848. Oil on canvas, 123 x 190 cm. The State Russian Museum, St Petersburg.
Morning at Sea, 1849
Morning at Sea, 1849. Oil on canvas, 85 x 101 cm. The State Museum “Pavlovsk”, St Petersburg.

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