Biography of Ivan Aivazovsky

                                                                                                Ivan Aivazovsky (1817-1900)

On 17th July 1817, it was written in the register of birth at the local Armenian Church that  “Hovhanness, Gevorg Aivazian’s son” was born. The young Hovhanness revealed unique  abilities for drawing and music, and he was capable at playing the violin. In particular, he  became absorbed in copying etchings from a book about the struggle of the Greeks against the Ottoman Empire.

As a young boy, Aivazovsky received his primary education in an Armenian parish school.
Then he finished the Simferopol grammar school. With the help of the mayor of Feodosiya he started out for St. Petersburg and entered the Academy of Arts. There he was taught by the well-known landscape painter, Maxim Vorobyev; in “battle class” he was taught by A Zauerveid; and for a short period of time he was taught by the maritime artist, F. Tanner,   who had been invited from France.

The masterliness of Aivazovsky developed very quickly. The works exhibited during the years of his studies aroused everybody’s interest, including that of Pushkin, who spoke very approvingly about them. Pushkin had met Aivazovsky at one of the Academic exhibition, and he had made a deep impression on the young painter. In 1837, having finished a course of studies and having been awarded a golden medal for a first class honours degree, Aivazovsky obtained the right to go abroad, with a grant from the Academy. However, at first the young painter was sent to the Crimea to paint scenes of seafront cities. Sailing on capital ships, Aivazovsky became acquainted with the admirals, M. Lazarev, F. Litke, V. Kornilov, P. Nakhimov, and P. Panfilov, and acquired a deep belief in the power of the the Russian fleet, and consequently became an unsurpassed singer of its victories. The commission of the Academy was successfully carried out.

In 1840, Aivazovsky left for Italy. There he became acquainted with the shining figures of Russian literature, art and science – Nikolay Gogol, Alexander Ivanov, Botkin, Panaev. Simultaneously, the circle of his Armenian acquaintances widened.

From Venice, the young artist started out for Florence, then to Amalfi and Sorrento where he stayed in the house, which much earlier belonged to Torquato Tasso. Aivazovsky worked in Italy with great inspiration and created about fifty large paintings. They were exhibited in Naples and Rome, and generated a boom, which brought fame to the young painter. The critics wrote that nobody up” until his time had depicted light, air and water so vividly and authentically. “Chaos,” by Aivazovsky, was honoured by being included in the permanent exposition of the Vatican Museum. Pope Gregory XVI gave the painter a gold medal. The English artist William Turner, renowned for his seascapes, devoted verses to Aivazovsky in which he called him a genius.

Aivazovsky also had great successs in Vinic and then in Paris, London, and Amsterdam. As the only representative of Russian art at the time, he took part in the International Exhibition organized in the Louvre, and he was the first foreign artist to become a knight of the Legion of Honour.

So, having left Russia to develop his talents, Aivazovsky returned to his motherland as a famous painter and a member of several academies. In St. Petersburg, the twenty-eight year-old master was honoured with several regalia; later, he was appointed artist to the Senior Naval Headquarters.

Immeasurable fame, easy circumstances and a royal palace did not attract the young academician. He decided to leave St. Petersburg forever and to make his home in his native city. This decision, which surprised everybody and which is very important for understanding the inner world of the painter and his strivings, had its own motives.

In Feodosia, the painter built a studio-house on the shore. Here, in a small provincial town, surrounded by his relatives and isolated from any cultural center. Aivazovsky created his own individual world, his “small Motherland,” with an atmosphere appropriate only to it, and which exists according to the laws which he himself, its master, established.

Following the dictates of his heart Aivazovsky created his own artistic language which was light and pure, as if the sea itself spoke it. This language gradually changed, the palette of the painter became lighter, and he instinctively approached “plein air” painting. However, his perception of the world never changed. He did not set new artistic tasks for himself; he did not take a pattern by his contemporaries and he had no interest in new developments. He for ever remained devoted to his imaginative visions and youthful fervour or, to be more exact, to the artistic lessons of the sea which he had already been given in childhood.

“The Sea is my life,” said Aivazovsky, who passionately and, indeed, deified and worshipped this object of his indefatigable love. Having tremendous energy and application, he created about six thousand paintings over many decades. His creative work is like a sea encyclopedia. This encyclopedia lets us see in great detail all the states of the watery element (calm, gentle commotion, and storm, and gale, which makes impression that world is about to ruin). Here you can see the sea in any time of a day from beautiful sunrise to bewitching lunar night. And at any time of year you can count many colours of the sea waves, from transparent, almost colourless through all conceivable variants of light blue, blue, sky-blue up to rich blackness.

However, Aivazovsky thought that it was impossible to reproduce the sea as it is, and that is why he never painted directly from Nature, but relied only on his own imagination. The painter who saw his own life reflected in the water element did not depict a genuine sea, but created his own sea on the canvasses; he told his own tale of the sea, imposing on it his own feelings, moods and dreams. The fabulousness of his art was very explicitly noted by the great psychologist Dostoevsky in his article, “The Exhibitions of 1860-1861 at the Academy of Art.”

Thus for Aivazovsky, he had entered the realm of Modern Art, but he obeyed his own canons on the perception of the artistic world.

In the immense heritage of Aivazovsky, views of the stormy sea hold a very prominent position. As a rule, whilst depicting a boisterous sea, the painter also depicted people helping one another in the fight against it. “A man never gives in, a man will win” – this motto of the painter reflected people’s optimism and life-endurance. The basis of Aivazovsky’s romanticism was twofold. It was firstly in his conviction that Man – a mote of the universe – had a great belief in Nature and in Life, and secondly and particularly, it lay in his undiminished belief in his nation, which struggled obdurately for its independence during the political storms of the 19th century. We cannot forget that allegory plays an important part in the painter’s work.

The charming and light atmosphere of the canvasses of Aivazovsky help one to perceive the dreaminess and emotionality of his art. The painter sees Man as a part of Nature. In his pictures, Man is depicted either against the background of a calm, placid sea, walking alone along the shore, or sitting in a boat looking dreamily at the light. It is not difficult to see self-portrait features in these fictitious, romantic characters of his pictures.

Light, as an idea, plays an important part in Aivazovsky’s creative work. An attentive observer feels that depicting the sea, clouds and atmosphere, the painter, in fact, depicts light, Light in his art is a symbol of life, hope and belief, a symbol of eternity. This is nothing other than a re-evaluation in his own fashion, of the idea of creative light, the light of cognition, which has a timeless and lasting tradition in Armenian culture, and which experienced a brilliant resurgence in the art of the later Armenian Masters.

This tradition was taken by Aivazovsky from mediaeval chants which praised the sunrise, and which he knew very well and heard constantly in Armenian churches. It is not accidental that, in speaking about his paintings he said. “The paintings in which the principal power is the light of the sun should be considered the best.” In the later canvasses by Aivazovsky, the light emanates from an indiscernible source, tearing the darkness like a powerful aigrette.

One day, in conversation with Martiros Sarian, Ilya Edinburg asked if Aivazovsky’s nationality was reflected in his creative work. Sarian said, “No matter what awful storm we see in his picture, in the upper part of the canvas, through the accumulation of thunder-clouds, a ray of light always breaks through, and though it is thin and weak, it announces deliverance. It is the belief in this Light that the nation of Aivazovsky carried through the ages. It is this light which contains the meaning of all the storms depicted by Aivazovsky.”

The completely original system of the picturesque seeing is appropriate for Aivazovsky. It removes his art out of the scopes of the canons, accepted in that time. You can see this feature in sometime extreme reserve, even abstract of the colour decisions of his pictures.

The passionate, penetrating and poetic work of Aivazovsky, brought into Russian painting fresh breath. The painter became one of the most acknowledged representatives of the Russian art throughout the world. He was the second person, after Orest Kiprensky, to be allowed the honour of presenting a self-portrait for the Pitti Palace Gallery in Florence.

However, in Russia from the 1870s onwards, the art of Aivazovsky sustained more and more criticism. V. Stasov accepted only the early period of his work. Alexandre Benois in his “The History of Russian Art of the 19th Century” wrote that although Aivazovsky was considered to be a pupil of Maxim Vorobyov, he stood apart from the general developments of the Russian landscape school. Such conclusions were not made simply because Aivazovsky worked alone, far from the centers of art, and that he showed his pictures principally at one-man, personal exhibitions.

The truth of the matter is that poetics and the world perception of Aivazovsky did not altogether coincide with the tendencies in the development of Russian Culture. In the first half of the 19th century, Russian art possessed a bright and clearly expressed national character. With the Peredvizhniki – that is the Wanderers – in Russian Art. There appeared a democratic realism, and the coryphees of great and realistic literature came forth. As for Aivazovsky, he still repeated his “tales’ of the sea, which were natural and normal for him. However, according to his own admission, these tales seemed fictitious and unnatural to the younger generation. New works, landscapes with their palettes close to nature – the result of imagination – could hardly give the author a place among Russian realists. This, no doubt, does not negate the close connections of the prominent maritime master with Russian art, and, moreover, his role in it. Stasov said, “Aivazovsky accomplished his work, and he directed others towards a new way.”

Anyhow, this critique was of sufficient significance that afterwards Russian research on art did not contain any significant material about Aivazovsky for a long time. The arguments around his art were rounded off by a well-known saying of Ivan Kramskoy, who knew the painter better than most, and who had painted his portrait on several occasions: “Aivazovsky. No matter what one says, is a star of the first magnitude, and not only in our country, but in the history of art in general.”

Aivazovsky became a famous Russian painter and, having arranged more than one hundred exhibitions in many European and American cities, brought great fame to Russian art.

In Armenia, Aivazovsky was and is considered to be an Armenian painter as naturally as he is considered within Russia to be a Russian painter. The creative individuality and world perception of this great maritime master, with the help of his own national roots, were already connected during his lifetime with Armenian culture. It is necessary to say here that the national basis of art is most felt in formal and stylized principles, and in the expressiveness of the language. The artistic language of Aivazovsky, as well as of all Armenian painters of the 19th century, Stepan Nersesian, Gevorg Bashinjaghian, Panos Therlemezian, Vartkes Sureniants, and Stepan Agajanian, etc., was formed under the influence of the European and Russian academic schools. Armenian culture in general developed during the past century mainly out of Armenia in the cities with substantial Armenian populations – Tiflis, Constantinople, Cairo, Paris, Moscow, and Baku. As for native Armenia, its precarious political situation did not promote the appearance of centers of culture; none of the Armenian painters worked in their Motherland.

By looking at Aivazovsky’s creative work in general, one realizes that it is impossible to consider Armenian art and its historical development without referring to his role in it. Looking at Aivazovsky simply as a Russian painter, without taking into consideration the Armenian origin of his art, one cannot fully understand his creative individuality. Thus, whilst belonging to Russian culture, he must be said to belong equally to Armenian culture as well.

The charitable and public activities, and the civil image of Aivazovsky are inseparable from his art. Very few people know that Aivazovsky was the first Russian painter to prevent personal exhibitions. The reasons that impelled him to this course were of a material nature. Although living in a modest way, Aivazovsky needed large amounts of money in order to help his compatriots. He deemed this to be his duty, and almost every year he presented exhibitions in large Russian and European cities. No Very few people know that Aivazovsky was the first Russian painter to prevent personal exhibitions. The reasons that impelled him to this course were of a material nature. Although living in a modest way, Aivazovsky needed large amounts of money in order to help his compatriots. He deemed this to be his duty, and almost every year he presented exhibitions in large Russian and European cities. No matter where he went – to Moscow or St. Petersburg, to Novonakhichevan or Tiflis, to Turkey or Egypt, to France or the USA – he was always interested in the life of the Armenians who lived there, including figures in the art world, and he did his best to enlighten them. The indefatigable service of Aivazovsky to his nation, and the fame, which accompanied his name gradually, made his image a legend in the eyes of Armenians, and a symbol of national enlightenment. Due to his efforts, Armenian youth became more interested in painting, and painters and writers alike spoke about him with reverence.

However, the public and charitable activities of Aivazovsky were never one-sided. Having founded a new Armenian school and a printing-house in Feodosiya, and having built a new church and repaired an old one, he founded, at the same time, an art college and the Historico-Archeological Museum. He erected a chapel in memory of the hero of the Caucasus, General Kotlyarevsky, he developed the system for drinking water in the city, and he promoted the building of the railway. Helping Armenian students and Turkish Armenians, as well as promoting the publication of precious works on Armenian history, he at one and the same time rendered assistance to the struggle of the Greek people. He helped the needy people of Odessa, Minsk, Florence, and Frankfurt, and he helped the students of the St. Petersburg Academy, the Red Cross, the invalids from the Sevastopol battle, and the families of Russian soldiers who had been killed. His motto, “To have in order to help,” enables us to see in him a real son of the romantic century and an exceptional personality.

The biography of Aivazovsky contains a number of enlightening and little-known episodes. We would like to dwell on two of them.

In the 1840s, the painter, together with Grand Duke Constantine Nikolaevich, traveled about Greece and Turkey. Besides meeting in high circles of state, they communicated with the Armenians living in those countries, and in Constantinople they spent a night in the house of David Savalanian. Having learnt about the closing of Armenian colleges because of a lack of money, Aivazovsky used his authority, his acquaintances with, and the presence of, the Grand Duke to raise funds, and within a year a college was opened. Something similar to this also took place in Smyrna; and in Bursa, the artist produced a painting, where he depicted Gregory the Enlightener, who established Christianity in Armenia in 301, especially for the Armenian church, which had suffered from a fire, and at the same time he created a picture for the Armenian calendar, which was published in Constantinople.

In 1857, Aivazovsky, together with his brother, visited Constantinople. For those in Armenian circles, the meetings with Aivazovsky were like holidays. On one occasions he presented the chief architect of Turkish palatial construction, Sargis Balian, with one of his works; the latter then presented it to the sultan, Abdul-Aziz, a great lover of painting. The enraptured sultan sent to Feodosiya, through Balian, a commission for a series of paintings with scenes of the Bosporus. It should be mentioned that the beauty of the city on the Bosporus made a great impression on Aivazovsky, and he thought that its beauty eclipsed the beauty of Venice and Naples. Hoping to do some good for his compatriots living in Turkey, Aivazovsky executed the order and was decorated with the highest Turkish order, “Osmani”. According to the painter, he produced forty works for the sultan and, in addition, presented a picture to the art school which had been founded in Constantinople by the Armenian sculptor, Ervand Voskan. It is noteworthy that the peace TREATY OF 1878 between Russia and Turkey was signed in a hall adorned with the canvasses of Aivazovsky.

Reading through the correspondence of Aivazovsky, and trying to imagine the volume of his activity, one cannot help but be surprised at how consistently and, at one and at the same time, diplomatically he promoted his humanistic ideas, and how, with the power of his art, he trived to become a world apostle to the North and the South, to the West and the East. Serving humanity, he served his own people as well, as he called it, to his “dear calling land”.

All subsequent historical events explain in many ways what his life was, and what things were most dear to him. They explain his hopes and disappointments, his reticence and his loneliness. When, in 1877, the Russian army captured Kars and part of Western Armenia, the Armenians accepted this news with exultation. After Greece, Serbia, and Bulgaria had been freed from the Ottoman yoke, it seemed that it was next the turn of Armenia, and that its long cherished hopes were about to come true. In the victory of the Russian fleet over Turkey, which was glorified by the painter, Aivazovsky saw the way of the liberation of his historical Motherland. Whilst depicting sea battles, the patriotic Aivazovsky also tried to portray the participants of the battles on the eastern front. Among them was General Ter-Gukasov, and at this time he started working on the picture, “The Capture of Kars at Night”. This action, which was not the duty of the painter as he was attached to the naval staff, very clearly expressed the general national enthusiasm with which Aivazovsky was possessed. His art was at the peak of its development. During these years, there appeared “The Black Sea”, which breathed universal calm, and a cycle of paintings devoted to Pushkin. Also, during this time, 1880, Aivazovskybuilt a “Gallery” under his house – the third museum in the Russian Empire.

In 1882, having received from Echmiadzin permission for a divorce from his first wife, and having married Anna Burnazian, the painter admitted that as a result of this second marriage, “he became even closer to his people”. And indeed, Aivazovsky turned himself more frequently to Armenian themes and embarked upon energetic activity. His connections with the leading figures of Armenian culture became warmer and more active, and he propagandized the art of Armenian actors, musicians and painters. Aivazovsky’s house in Feodosiya became a place of pilgrimage. Here, Armenian writers stayed whilst on visits, and Armenian actors, musicians demonstrated their mastery on the stage of the exhibition hall. In the Gallery, together with famous musicians and actors such as Rubinstein, Venyavsky, Varlamov, and Sazonov, the tragic actor Petros Adamian played, as did violinist Hovhanness Nalbandian, who was to become a professor of the St. Petersburg Conservatory, as did composer Alexander Spendiarov, with whom Aivazovsky sometimes played violin duets. Not only was a remarkable pleiad of Armenian maritime masters formed here, but almost all the Armenian artists of the second half of the last century received their approbation here. According to V. Sureniants, Aivazovsky dreamed of creating a union which would unite the figures of Armenian art scattered al over the world.

It would seem that life had settled down. However, in the middle of the 1890s, having decided to put an end to “The Armenian Question”, Sultan Abdul – hamid embarked upon a massacre, the victims of which were hundreds of thousands of Armenians. The cultural monuments were burned and destroyed, and a deadly blow was inflicted upon the dreams cherished by the Armenian people, and upon the romantic illusions held by its intelligentsia. These terrible events shook Aivazovsky, and what was in his soul revealed itself. In a letter sent to Catholicos Khrimian in Echmiadzin, the painter wrote, “The unprecedented and unheard of slaughter of poor Armenians darkened my heart with deep pain”. The painter created a number of paintings: “The Massacre of the Armenians in Trebizond”, “Night: The Tragedy at the Sea of Marmara”, and so on, and exhibited them in Moscow and Odessa. His everyday concern became the provision of shelter for those Armenians who had escaped the slaughter and who had come to Feodosiya. “It’s shameful to turn away from your own people”, V.S. Krivenko quotes the painter’s words, “especially so small in number and so oppressed”. Further on he wrote, “The source of painful feelings for Aivazovsky was the thought of those acts of violence which the Turks had committed on the defenceless and wretched Armenians. He didn’t stop believing, didn’t stop hoping that people’s hearts would be moved, that Europe, at last, would stand up for them and not let the Turks completely destroy the poor people.” Malutin wrote in his diary, “Aivazovsky accused Russian policy-makers, and Prince Lobanov-Rostovsky in particular”.

The painter threw his Ottoman orders into the sea and told the Turkish consul to say to his “bloody master”, “If he wants, let him throw my paintings into the sea; I won’t feel sorry”.

Feelings, which the great humanist experienced, were expressed in his later seascapes. Napoleon on the island of St. Helena is depicted alone and on a rocky shore, bathed in the rays of the sun as if it is the painter himself who, standing motionless before the element which was so dear to his heart, stopped to look at an eagle flying freely over the depths. The picture, “Amidst the Waves”, is one of the best of the heritage of Aivazovsky, and can be perceived as the volcanic flash of a restless soul, whilst the painting, “Explosion of the Turkish Ship”, which was started on the last day of the painter’s life, 2 May 1900, and remained unfinished, is like a clot of blood and anger.

According to Aivazovsky’s will, he was buried in Feodosiya, in the graveyard of the Surb Sargis church, where he had been baptized and married. On his gravestone there is an inscription, “Professor Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky. 1817-1900.” Above it, the words of the fifth century historian, Movses Khorenatsy, carved in ancient Armenian script say, “Born mortal, but after his death an immortal memory”.

Grateful generations will keep this memory.

Shaen Hachatryan,
The Head of the National Armenian Gallery and The Martiros Sarian Museum.


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