Somewhere at Sea – Ivan Aivazovsky and His Marine Art

Elizaveta Ermakova 28 May 2023 min Read

Many artists painted the sea, but only Ivan Aivazovsky was completely devoted to it. Over his long life (1817–1900), he dedicated thousands of canvases to the sea. Sunsets and sunrises over the sea, storms, calm, shipwrecks, sea battles, and even a worldwide flood – we welcome you to the sea world of Ivan Aivazovsky!

Ivan Aivazovsky, The Rainbow
Ivan Aivazovsky, The Rainbow, 1873, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia.

Learning to Swim

Armenian by birth, Ovannes Aivazyan was a native of Feodosia, a city on the Black Sea. You can imagine where young Aivazovsky got his life-long inspiration! The artist lived there most of his life and built for himself a luxurious estate.

At an early age, Aivazovsky showed outstanding musical abilities. Without any help, he learned to play the violin quite well. And if it were not for his later-revealed talent in painting, then who knows – maybe the world would have recognized Aivazovsky as a famous musician?

Ivan Aivazovsky, Aivazovsky a child playing the violin,
Ivan Aivazovsky, Aivazovsky a child playing the violin, ca. 1880, Aivazovsky National Art Gallery, Feodosia, Crimea. I-Aivazovsky.

His artistic abilities were also evident. Aivazovsky entered the Imperial Academy of Arts despite the fact that he had not yet reached the required age (he was under 14 years old). Alexey Olenin, the Academy president, made this decision after looking at only one drawing by Aivazovsky.

Ivan Aivazovsky, Stormy sea at night
Ivan Aivazovsky, Stormy Sea at Night, 1849, Pavlovsk Palace, Saint Petersburg, Russia.

Aivazovsky received the Grand Gold Medal of the Academy in 1837 and won a trip to Europe. The 20-year-old Aivazovsky had also graduated two years earlier than expected since his teachers decided that the academy could not teach him anything more.

Embarking on the Ship of Success

In the years 1840–1844, the young master traveled across Europe, perfecting his skills. At first, he lived and studied in Italy. During these years he developed his own creative method and learned to work from memory. Aivazovsky, like most other painters, created all his famous seascapes in his studio, and not in situ! His studio had windows with the court view, not the sea.

Ivan Aivazovsky, Moonlit night in Capri
Ivan Aivazovsky, Moonlit Night in Capri, 1841, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia.

Aivazovsky’s Italian paintings brought him great success, consequently, he was able to continue his European adventures. Once, while traveling, Aivazovsky’s steamer got into a heavy storm. The ship was thought to be wrecked and the artist lost. His obituaries were even published in Saint Petersburg newspapers!

Ivan Aivazovsky, The Deluge
Ivan Aivazovsky, The Deluge, 1864, The State Russian Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia.

The Great Sail

Ivan Aivazovsky returned to Russia in triumph. He became an academic and was assigned to the General Navy Staff as an artist.

Nicholas I of Russia, going to sea on a paddle steamer, once took Aivazovsky with him. The Emperor stood on the casing of one steamer wheel, and the artist on the other. And Nicholas shouted: “Aivazovsky! I am the king of the earth, and you are the king of the sea!

Russian artist Kirill Lemokh remembering Aivazovsky, Iakov Mintchenkov, Memories of Peredvizhniki, 1965, Lib.Ru.

Alexey Tyranov, The portrait of Ivan Aivazovsky,
Alexey Tyranov, The portrait of Ivan Aivazovsky, 1841, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia.

Aivazovsky received many honorary titles (including counter-admiral). He traveled a lot and captured many seas: he was in Egypt, Greece, and Anatolia. But most importantly, Aivazovsky continued to paint seascapes, which were very popular. In total, he created more than six thousand paintings. However, he made numerous replicas of a single composition, if it turned out that the public liked it.

In 1843, Ivan Aivazovsky also became the first Russian painter whose works were exhibited in the Louvre: Sea hore. Calm, Night on the shores of Naples, and Storm near the coast of Abkhazia.

Ivan Aivazovsky, Sea shore. Calm,
Ivan Aivazovsky, Seashore. Calm, 1843, The State Russian Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia.

He is not bright, but his nature is complex and worthy of attention. In himself, he combines a general, and a bishop, and an artist, and an Armenian, and a naive grandfather, and Othello… He was a friend of Pushkin, but did not read Pushkin. In his life, he has not read a single book. When asked to read, he says: “Why should I read if I have my own opinions?”

Russian writer Anton Chekhov about Aivazovsky, Chekhov’s letter from 1888. Chehov-lit.

Ivan Aivazovsky, Acropolis of Athens
Ivan Aivazovsky, Acropolis of Athens, 1883, Kyiv Art Gallery, Kyiv, Ukraine.

To be fair, Aivazovsky painted not only deep waters but also genre scenes, mountains, and biblical scenes… But it is his marine-loving soul that made the artist famous.

Ivan Aivazovsky, The Black Sea
Ivan Aivazovsky, The Black Sea, 1881, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia.

Ivan Aivazovsky, Sea. Koktebel
Ivan Aivazovsky, Sea. Koktebel, 1853, Aivazovsky National Art Gallery, Feodosia, Crimea. 

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