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Great Artists of Russia: Ivan Aivazovsky

The Ninth Wave
The Ninth Wave (1850) is Aivazovsky's most famous work (Public Domain)
One of Russia’s greatest painters, Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky is considered one of the finest marine artists ever. Immensely popular inside Russia, the native of Armenia contributed some 6,000 plus works of fine art over six decades.

Born into an Armenian family of Feodosia, on the Black Sea, the artist spent much of his time in Crimea. A graduate of the Imperial Academy of Arts, Aivazovsky traveled extensively in Europe, and even  in the United States. The artist’s close association with the military, and with the political elite of the Russian Empire, had much to do with the extended popularity of his majestic works. At a point, the painter was even sponsored by the imperial family. Over his career, Aivazovsky created mostly seascapes and scenes of battles. Some of his works focused on Armenian subjects, as well as some rather famous portrait work.

Shipwreck , 1854
Shipwreck , 1854

Aivazovsky married Julia Graves, an English governess, in 1848, and the couple had four daughters together before divorcing in 1877. Of notable moments in his career, his 1851 adventures traveling with Russian emperor Nicholas I would prove noteworthy. Sailing with the fleet Aivazovsky landed in Sevastopol to participate in military maneuvers. Later on the painter worked at archeological excavations near Feodosia, which lead to his election as a full member of the Russian Geographical Society in 1853. It was then that the Crimean War erupted between Russia and the Ottoman Empire.

The artist even opened an art gallery in his Feodosia house in 1880, which was actually only the third museum in the Russian Empire after the Hermitage and the Tretyakov Gallery. In 1882, Aivazovsky married for a second time to an Armenian widow named Anna Burnazian.

Chumaks in Little Russia
Chumaks in Little Russia (Public Domain)

Aivazovsky never forgot his deep seeded distaste for the Ottoman regime after the so-called Hamidan massacres in occupied Armenia. Aivazovsky’s paintings; The Expulsion of the Turkish Ship, and The Armenian Massacres at Trebizond, are said to reflect this. The artist spent his final years in his beloved Feodosia, where he opened an art school, built an historical museum, and began the previously mentioned archeology digs.

The Betrayal of Judas
The Betrayal of Judas (WikiArt)

Aivazovsky died on 19 April 1900 in Feodosia. ON his tombstone are inscribed the words;  “Մահկանացու ծնեալ անմահ զիւրն յիշատակ եթող,” which loosely translate to; “Born as a mortal, left the immortal memory of himself.” Of Aivazovsky, the great Anton Chekov once wrote:

“Aivazovsky himself is a hale and hearty old man of about seventy-five, looking like an insignificant Armenian and an bishop; he is full of a sense of his own importance, has soft hands and shakes your hand like a general. He's not very bright, but he is a complex personality, worthy of a further study. In him alone there are combined a general, a bishop, an artist, an Armenian, an naive old peasant, and an Othello.”

Famous for his “artistic memory,” most of Aivazovsky’s seascapes were created far from the sea, it is said. The artist was able to reproduce what he saw, even after only having briefly seen his subject. True to his talent always, Aivazovsky was a romanticist extraordinary. His masterpiece, the Ninth Wave, is a great work by any measure of art.