Ivan Ayvazovsky’s 185th birthday was marked in Russia on July 29. Virtually
everyone in Russia is familiar with this outstanding painter of seascapes.
However, this is not to say that the attitude to Ayvazovsky’s numerous works
(more than 6,000 paintings) and their prolific author is unequivocal.
Ayvazovsky’s career spanned the greater part of the 19th century and reflected
this tremendous century in a peculiar way. During the more than 65 years that he
worked, the attitude to him of the public and various celebrities changed,
although in conventional terms, success was the artist’s inseparable companion
during his entire lifetime, in stark contrast to the many painters who were
neglected and poor while they lived but became famous posthumously.
The artist’s birthplace was not without meaning for his future career.
Indeed, he was born in Feodosia on the Crimean sea coast. The name Ayvazovsky
comes from the Armenian Ayvazian which, in turn, originated from the Arabic
ajvaz meaning "butler" or "major domo." Today, however, Ayvazovsky’s birthplace,
as well as a large number of his works in the Feodosia Museum, happen to be in a
foreign country, Ukraine.
The young boy’s talented drawings were noticed by the Feodosia architect, and
he was sent to a secondary school in Simferopol. From there he went on to the
St. Petersburg Academy of the Arts, where he received a grant. He showed such
brilliance that his studies were reduced by two years.
The first work that Ayvazovsky displayed to the public in 1835 was a seascape
called Study of the Air Over the Sea. It was an instant success, and was awarded
the Silver Medal. Thus, not yet twenty, Ayvazovsky became a leading painter of
seascapes. And once he had chosen this particular genre in painting, he never
turned back or faltered.
The artist regularly made trips through the Black Sea and the Gulf of
Finland. He took part in the expeditions of admirals Lazarev, Kornilov and
Nakhimov. However, seascapes clearly cannot be painted from life. Ayvazovsky’s
most important gift was therefore an amazing visual memory, which enabled him to
reproduce particular states of nature at sea.
Ayvazovsky’s success was not confined to the Russian Empire. In 1840 he
traveled to Italy, where all Russian artists went to study Italian art. Instead
of simply learning, Ayvazovsky gained tremendous popularity in the country that
gave the world the greatest painters of all. Every store in Italy sold
reproductions of seascapes a la Ayvazovsky.
In 1843 Ayvazovsky traveled to Paris, Amsterdam and London with an exhibition
of his works. Everywhere he was hailed as the greatest seascape artist of the
time. The English artist Joseph Turner, himself a painter of seascapes, wrote a
poem honoring Ayvazovsky.
In the early period of his career Ayvazovsky was inspired by Romanticism, the
prevailing trend in the arts at the time. He was in many respects similar to the
painter Karl Bryullov, author of canvases on historical and religious themes.
Bryullov’s most famous painting is The Last Day of Pompeii (reproductions of
which have recently been conspicuously displayed in Moscow on billboards
advertising the Emergency Situations Ministry). Both artists were very popular
in their time, but proved rather more difficult to digest in the unromantic
centuries that followed.
In a certain sense Ayvazovsky was not an artist but a photographer of the
sea, and his works lost their unique flavor once color photographs began to
reproduce the sea with greater realism and beauty. But in their time
Ayvazovsky’s canvases were exactly what most art collectors or simply rich
people wanted to have in their homes, and the artist quickly made a fortune
selling his numerous paintings. What other success was needed to confirm
However, in the 1860s and 1870s Ayvazovsky began to be criticized by the more
exacting viewers. The great writer Dostoyevsky compared Ayvazovsky to Alexandre
Dumas pere: "Both men’s works are made for extraordinary effects, because they
do not depict ordinary things; they despise ordinary things." Dostoyevsky urged
artists to turn to the ordinary, the mundane and the everyday. Critics also
pointed to Ayvazovsky’s academic approach to painting and his belated
Romanticism. Generally, the better-educated public cultivated an ironic attitude
to Ayvazovsky reflected in sayings such as "a view worthy of Ayvazovsky’s
In 1845 Ayvazovsky returned to Feodosia. He painted several canvases on
Biblical themes such as The Flood and The Creation. He did not pay much
attention to his critics, churning out pictures of Russia’s naval victories.
When the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878 broke out, he produced a series of
paintings on the subject. This, of course, did nothing to endear Ayvazovsky to
the radicals of the day.
With the advent of Neoromanticism in the 1880s, Ayvazovsky’s popularity rose
again. The master continued to work. He depicted episodes from the life of
Christopher Columbus. Occasionally, he tried his hand at paintings other than
seascapes. He drew views of his town, winter scenes, etc., but none of those
were very successful; in fact, some were definitely helpless.
Ayvazovsky remained faithful to the sea until his death. He died on April 19,
1900, leaving unfinished his last canvas Explosion of a Turkish Ship.
There is one painting that stands out among all of Ayvazovsky’s works. It is
The Ninth Wave (1850). It shows the survivors of a shipwreck clinging to a
broken mast about to be hit, perhaps even swept away to their death, by a huge
wave. This is the epitome of the artist’s Romantic period. Later, the artist
shifted from Romanticism to Realism.
Probably the most amazing thing about Ayvazovsky’s art was that it catered to
the tastes of so many different people. There is absolutely nothing political in
Ayvazovsky’s works, yet both Czarist and Soviet regimes enthusiastically
accepted the artist as their own. Only Ayvazovsky’s European fame declined
considerably in the 20th century.
Ivan Ayvazovsky lived through a period when painting was revolutionized by
the appearance of Impressionism and other trends, yet these momentous
developments had no effect on the master.
Perhaps such steadfastness and immunity to change deserve respect. In any
case, Ayvazovsky will always remain part of the Russian artistic legacy. Artist
and public figure Ivan Kramskoy, once an opponent of Ayvazovsky’s Romanticism,
wrote about one of Ayvazovsky’s later works, The Black Sea (1881): "There is
nothing in the picture except the sky and water, but the water is a boundless
ocean, not stormy but swaying, grim, endless, and the sky, if possible, is even
more infinite. It is one of the most grandiose paintings I have ever known."