Blog 18 27/09/2015 Ivan Aivazovsky: Painter to Sultans with a Lifelong Passion for the Greek Struggle for Independence.
Ivan Aivazovsky: Painter to Sultans with a Lifelong Passion for the Greek Struggle for Independence.
Ivan Aivazovsky (1817- 1900), is probably one of the best known 19th century painters of the Russian Romantic Movement. Armenian by birth, he was born in the Crimean Black Sea port of Theodosia. His father, Konstantin Gaivazian, a merchant, married his second wife, “a pretty Armenian girl”, who gave him three sons, Hohannes (the Armenian form for Ivan) being the younger. Like most traders in the area at the time, his father spoke several languages – Armenian, Turkish, Russian, German, Italian, Yiddish, Romany and all Danubian dialects. Theodosia may have been a small place but Ivan grew up in a cosmopolitan world, exposed to seafaring, trade and war.
He was a prolific painter who painted over six thousand pictures, held numerous exhibitions, and was much sought after in his day. Most of his paintings are in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Kiev. Others are scattered throughout Ottoman Palaces, some in the museum of Theodosia and others in the Armenian Monastery of Saint Lazarus in Venice.
I first came across his work whilst researching the 19th century Ottoman Empire when he was commissioned by Sultan Abdulaziz to paint more than thirty paintings for the new Dolmabahce Palace in Istanbul which had been built by his predecessor, Sultan Abdulmecit, between 1843–56. By that time, Aivezovsky was an acclaimed artist throughout Russia and Europe. During a trip to Europe, he stopped in Istanbul and ever the diplomat, tactfully gave gifts of his paintings to the Sultan’s Courtiers knowing that this new Palace with its European taste would require further paintings. Although widely known as a maritime painter, his views of Istanbul and the Bosphorus are some of his finest pieces.
By the time he reached his twenties, Aivazovsky was so widely esteemed he was elected as a member to five international academies. Whilst on a trip to Rome, he met Turner who was living there at the time. Turner was so impressed with his “The Bay of Naples on a Moonlit Night” and commented that his painting had entranced him and he was overcome with ecstasy. “Your art is lofty and powerful, because you are inspired by genius”
Aivazovsky had always enjoyed a special relationship with the Russian Imperial Navy and set about dedicating a series of works on sea battles. The Crimean War marked a turning in naval battles, in particular, the Battle of Sinope, in which the Russian Fleet was almost destroyed by the Ottomans. Among Aivazovsky’s paintings of the Crimean War are two depicting this famous battle.
Towards the end of his life, he returned to Theodosia to open a picture gallery to the public – the first private gallery in provincial Russia. Although he was sought after by the elite of the Ottoman Empire, throughout his life he held a lifelong passion for the Greek struggle for Independence and in 1881 travelled to Smyrna and Greece, to gather more material on this theme. “…As close as my heart is to Russia and its past, present, and future, I am just as much in love with Greece – with its antique and long past times…” The following year he exhibited a series of paintings on this theme at the Imperial Academy in St. Petersburg.
Aivazovsky had four daughters by his marriage to Julia Greaves but the marriage was not a happy one and she moved back to her home in Odessa. In 1882, at the age of sixty-five, he married for the second time. Anna Nikitichna Sakizovaya was thirty-nine years younger and already a widow. A humble woman, she ran the household and entertained their guests. After his death, she was a follower of the Bolshevik revolution but the Soviet authorities confined her to smaller living quarters where she lived until the Nazi invasion when she moved to Simferol. Spared of Stalin’s mass deportations of Armenians, she died in poverty in 1944.
Aivazovsky’s work spanned a period of great change. He was often fanciful in his painting but strove to create a vision as a poet does with verse. Abandoning plein-air painting, he made copious notes and sketches that served him as visual stimuli – the emotion born of experience. Working at great speed suited him. He once painted a view of Istanbul in a hotel room in Vienna for his old friend, the Chamberlain to Sultan Abdulhamit, who had been appointed to the Ottoman Embassy there and who was feeling particularly homesick, in less time than it takes to read a magazine. Much of his work has a moody, transparent quality that catches the light and which is created by applying thin layers of wash over a prepared ground that enabled him to distribute light seamlessly.
Perhaps an insight into his approach is shown when he wrote about his “Moonlit Night in Gurzuf”. “If the viewer stands before the painting… and concentrates on the moon, and gradually, while not letting the subject of the painting out of his sight, glances at the rest of the painting… and bears in mind that this is a night scene… then the viewer will find that the picture is as finished as it needs to be,”
The illusion that is art.