Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky (Russian: Ива́н Константи́нович Айвазо́вский; 29 July 1817 – 2 May 1900) was a Russian Romantic painter who is considered one of the greatest masters of marine art. Baptized as Hovhannes Aivazian, he was born into an Armenian family in the Black Sea port of Feodosia in Crimea and was mostly based there.
Following his education at the Imperial Academy of Arts in Saint Petersburg, Aivazovsky traveled to Europe and lived briefly in Italy in the early 1840s. He then returned to Russia and was appointed the main painter of the Russian Navy. Aivazovsky had close ties with the military and political elite of the Russian Empire and often attended military maneuvers. He was sponsored by the state and was well-regarded during his lifetime. The saying “worthy of Aivazovsky’s brush”, popularized by Anton Chekhov, was used in Russia for describing something lovely. He remains highly popular in Russia.
One of the most prominent Russian artists of his time, Aivazovsky was also popular outside Russia. He held numerous solo exhibitions in Europe and the United States. During his almost 60-year career, he created around 6,000 paintings, making him one of the most prolific artists of his time. The vast majority of his works are seascapes, but he often depicted battle scenes, Armenian themes, and portraiture. Most of Aivazovsky’s works are kept in Russian, Ukrainian and Armenian museums as well as private collections.
A primarily Romantic painter, Aivazovsky used some Realistic elements. Leek argued that Aivazovsky remained faithful to Romanticism] throughout his life, “even though he oriented his work toward the Realist genre.” His early works are influenced by his Academy of Arts teachers Maxim Vorobiev and Sylvester Shchedrin. Classic painters like Salvator Rosa, Jacob Isaacksz van Ruisdael and Claude Lorrain contributed to Aivazovsky’s individual process and style. Karl Bryullov, best known for his The Last Day of Pompeii, “played an important part in stimulating Aivazovsky’s own creative development,” according to Bolton. Aivazovsky’s best paintings in the 1840s–1850s used a variety of colors and were both epic and romantic in theme. Newmarch suggested that by the mid-19th century the romantic features in Aivazovsky’s work became “increasingly pronounced.” She, like most scholars, considered his Ninth Wave his best piece of art and argued that it “seems to mark the transition between fantastic color of his earlier works, and the more truthful vision of the later years.” By the 1870s, his paintings were dominated by delicate colors; and in the last two decades of his life, Aivazovsky created a series of silver-toned seascapes.
The distinct transition in Russian art from Romanticism to Realism in the mid-nineteenth century left Aivazovsky, who would always retain a Romantic style, open to criticism. Proposed reasons for his unwillingness or inability to change began with his location; Feodosia was a remote town in the huge Russian empire, far from Moscow and Saint Petersburg. His mindset and worldview were similarly considered old-fashioned, and did not correspond to the developments in Russian art and culture. Vladimir Stasov only accepted his early works, while Alexandre Benois wrote in his The History of Russian Painting in the 19th Century that despite being Vorobiev’s student, Aivazovsky stood apart from the general development of the Russian landscape school.
Aivazovsky’s later work contained dramatic scenes and was usually done on a larger scale. He depicted “the romantic struggle between man and the elements in the form of the sea (The Rainbow, 1873), and so-called “blue marines” (The Bay of Naples in Early Morning, 1897, Disaster, 1898) and urban landscapes (Moonlit Night on the Bosphorus, 1894).”
During his 60-year career, Aivazovsky produced around 6,000 paintings of, what one online art magazine describes, “very different value … there are masterpieces and there are very timid works”. However, according to one count as many as 20,000 paintings are attributed to him. The vast majority of Aivazovsky’s works depict the sea. He rarely drew dry-landscapes and created only a handful of portraits. According to Rosa Newmarch Aivazovsky “never painted his pictures from nature, always from memory, and far away from the seaboard.” Rogachevsky wrote that “His artistic memory was legendary. He was able to reproduce what he had seen only for a very short time, without even drawing preliminary sketches.” Bolton praised “his ability to convey the effect of moving water and of reflected sun and moonlight.”
He held 55 solo exhibitions (an unprecedented number) over the course of his career. Among the most notable were held in Rome, Naples and Venice (1841–42), Paris (1843, 1890), Amsterdam (1844), Moscow (1848, 1851, 1886), Sevastopol (1854), Tiflis (1868), Florence (1874), St. Petersburg (1875, 1877, 1886, 1891), Frankfurt (1879), Stuttgart (1879), London (1881), Berlin (1885, 1890), Warsaw (1885), Constantinople (1888), New York (1893), Chicago (1893), San Francisco (1893).
He also “contributed to the exhibitions of the Imperial Academy of Arts (1836–1900), Paris Salon (1843, 1879), Society of Exhibitions of Works of Art (1876–83), Moscow Society of Lovers of the Arts (1880), Pan-Russian Exhibitions in Moscow (1882) and Nizhny Novgorod (1896), World Exhibitions in Paris (1855, 1867, 1878), London (1863), Munich (1879) and Chicago (1893) and the international exhibitions in Philadelphia (1876), Munich (1879) and Berlin (1896).
Aivazovsky was the most influential seascape painter in nineteenth-century Russian art. According to the Russian Museum, “he was the first and for a long time the only representative of seascape painting” and “all other artists who painted seascapes were either his own students or influenced by him.”
Arkhip Kuindzhi (1841/2–1910) is cited by Krugosvet encyclopedia as having been influenced by Aivazovsky. In 1855, at age 13–14, Kuindzhi visited Feodosia to study with Aivazovsky, however, he was engaged merely to mix paints and instead studied with Adolf Fessler, Aivazovsky’s student. A 1903 encyclopedic article stated: “Although Kuindzhi cannot be called a student of Aivazovsky, the latter had without doubt some influence on him in the first period of his activity; from whom he borrowed much in the manner of painting.” English art historian John E. Bowlt wrote that “the elemental sense of light and form associated with Aivazovsky’s sunsets, storms, and surging oceans permanently influenced the young Kuindzhi.”
Aivazovsky also influenced Russian painters Lev Lagorio, Mikhail Latri, and Aleksey Ganzen (the latter two were his grandsons).
Ivan Aivazovsky is one of the few Russian artists to achieve wide recognition during their lifetime. Today, he is considered as one of the most prominent marine artists of the 19th century, and, overall, one of the greatest marine artists in Russia and the world. Aivazovsky was also one of the few Russian artists to become famous outside Russia. In 1898, Munsey’s Magazine wrote that Aivazovsky is “better known to the world at large than any other artist of his nationality, with the exception of the sensational Verestchagin”. Although according to art historian Janet Whitmore he is relatively unknown in the west. Art historian Rosalind Polly Blakesley noted in a 2003 book review that he has not been incorporated into the Western mainstream history of art.
In a July 2017 poll conducted by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM) Aivazovsky ranked first as the most favorite artist with 27% of respondents naming him as their favorite, ahead of Ivan Shishkin (26%) and Ilya Repin (16%). Overall, 93% of respondents said they were familiar with his name (26% knew him well, 67% have heard his name) and 63% of those who know him said they liked his works, including 80% of those 60 or older and 35% of 18 to 24 year olds.
In 1890, the Brockhaus and Efron Encyclopedic Dictionary described him as the “best Russian marine painter”. Ivan Kramskoi, one of the most prominent Russian artists of the nineteenth century, praised him thus: “Aivazovsky is—no matter who says what—a star of first magnitude, and not only in our [country], but also in history of art in general.” Another Russian painter, Alexandre Benois, suggested that “Aivazovsky stands apart from the general history of the Russian school of landscape painting.” The State Russian Museum website continues, “It is hard to find another figure in the history of Russian art enjoying the same popularity among amateur viewers and erudite professionals alike.” Writing in 1861 in the magazine Vremya, Fyodor Dostoyevsky compared Aivazovsky’s work with that of Alexandre Dumas as both artists “produce a remarkably striking effect: remarkable indeed, as neither man ever produces anything ordinary at all. Ordinary things, they despise. Their compositions are certainly quite fascinating. The books of Dumas were devoured with impatience; the paintings of Aivazovsky have been selling like hot cakes. Both produce works that are not dissimilar to fairy tales: fireworks, clatter, screams, howling winds, lightning.”
In nineteenth-century Russia, his name became a synonym for art and beauty. The phrase “worthy of Aivazovsky’s brush” was the standard way of describing something ineffably lovely. It was first used by Anton Chekhov in his 1897 play Uncle Vanya. In response to Marina Timofeevna’s (the old nurse) query about the fight between Ivan Voynitsky (“Uncle Vanya”) and Aleksandr Serebryakov, Ilya Telegin says that it was “A sight worthy of Aivazovsky’s brush” (Сюжет, достойный кисти Айвазовского Syuzhet, dostoyniy kisti Ayvazovskovo).
A street in Moscow (ru) was named after Aivazovsky in 1978. His first and only statue in Russia was erected in 2007 in Kronstadt, near Saint Petersburg.
Aivazovsky has always been considered an Armenian painter in his ancestral homeland and virtually always referred to there by his original Armenian name, Hovhannes. Virtually all Armenian, some Russian and English sources, refer to him as Hovhannes Ayvazovski (Armenian: Հովհաննես Այվազովսկի; Russian: Ован(н)ес Айвазовский, Ovan(n)es Aivazovsky). The artist signed some of his paintings and letters in Armenian. For instance, his signatures in both Armenian (Այվազեան, Ayvazean) and Russian (Айвазовскій, Ayvazovskiy) appear on Valley of Mount Ararat (1882).
Aivazovsky has been described as the “most remarkable” Armenian painter of the 19th century and the first-ever Armenian marine painter. He was born outside Armenia proper, and like his contemporaries, including Gevorg Bashinjaghian, Panos Terlemezian, and Vardges Sureniants, Aivazovsky lived outside his homeland, drawing primary influences from European and Russian schools of art. His creativity and viewpoint have been attributed to his uniquely Armenian roots. According to Sureniants, he sought to create a union which would have brought together all Armenian artists around the world. The prominent Armenian poet Hovhannes Tumanyan wrote a short poem titled “In Front of an Aiazovsky painting” («Այվազովսկու նկարի առջև») in 1893. It is inspired by painting of the sea by Aivazovsky, mostly likely from the 1870s–1890s. It was translated into English in 1917 by Alice Stone Blackwell.
Several paintings of Aivazovsky from the National Gallery of Armenia hang in the Presidential Palace in Yerevan.
In Ukraine, he is sometimes considered a Ukrainian painter. He was included in a 2001 book titled 100 Greatest Ukrainians. An alley in Kiev (Провулок Айвазовського) was named after him in 1939. A three-star hotel in Odessa, where dozens of his works are displayed, is named for him as well. A statue of Aivazovsky and his brother Gabriel is located in Simferopol, Crimea’s administrative center.
Aivazovsky’s painting were popular in the Ottoman imperial court during the 19th century. According to Hürriyet Daily News, as of 2014, 30 paintings of Aivazovsky are on display in museums in Turkey. According to another source, there are 41 paintings of Aivazovsky on display in Turkey, 21 in former palaces of Ottoman sultans, 10 in various marine and military museums, and 10 at the presidential residence. In 2007, when Abdullah Gül became president of Turkey, he brought paintings by Aivazovsky up from the basement to hang in his office during redecoration of the presidential palace, the Çankaya Mansion in Ankara. Pictures of official meetings of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at the new Presidential Complex in Ankara show that the walls of the rooms at the presidential residence are decorated with Aivazovsky’s artwork.