“Worthy of Aivazovsky's brush" - the marine poet Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky

2 May 1900, The Russo-Armenian Romantic artist and celebrated marine painter Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky died in Feodosia at the age of 82.

“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.“ (Anton Chekhov)

A self-portrait of the artist as a quite sideburned man
from 1874, now at the Uffizi in Florence

It was a bit odd that the Russo-Armenian “marine poet” had won quite a few Turkish awards and medals since his paintings usually depicted Ottoman naval defeats. Admittedly, most of them came from Sultan Abdülaziz who was something of an artistic oddity in the Dolmabahçe Palace, but when the news of the Hamidian massacres of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire leaked, the artist was shocked along with the rest of the western world, threw his medals into the Black Sea and returned the ribbons to the Ottoman ambassador in his native Feodosia and made a clear statement: "Tell your bloodthirsty master that I've thrown away all the medals given to me, here are their ribbons, send it to him and if he wants, he can throw them into the seas painted by me." The last works of Aivazovsky consequently revolved around denouncing the atrocities committed against his people on the other side of the Black Sea. He was in his late seventies by then, had married the young Armenian widow Anna Burnazian back in 1882, found his Armenian roots, returned to the Armenian community to become one of its pillars in his hometown Feodosia on the Crimea, used his all-Russian and international fame along with his money to do good and was buried with an epitaph quoted from the 5th century “Armenian Herodotus” Movses Khorenatsi: "He was born a mortal, left an immortal legacy".  

“Byron in Venice” combining Aivazovsky’s
and Turner’s mutual love for the place, the poet,
the sea and the light 

Born in quite poor circumstances in Feodosia, Aivazovsky grew up in Poland and was noticed for his talent quite early, allowing him to study in St Petersburg and getting a formal education as a painter. With a generous scholarship awarded by the Tsar himself, Aivazovsky was able to travel Western Europe to study the old masters in Italy and with a contemporary master, J.M.W. Turner, in Rome, who obviously was quite enchanted with Aivazovsky’s work, most notably with a painting titled quite like a 1950s ditty, sung by Louis Prima: “The Bay of Naples on a Moonlit Night“. Turner wrote: “L’arte tuo ben’ e potente / Perche il genio t’inspiró!’“ (So good and potent is your art / That only genius could have inspired you). Unsurprisingly, Turner took a liking to the young Russian since they shared the same Romantic attitude towards the sea and ships and both did wonders with the interplay of light and water and the drama of inclement weather. In 1845, Aivazovsky, then just 28 years old, returned back home to Russia, married an English governess and was appointed the "official artist of the Russian Navy to paint seascapes, coastal scenes and naval battles." He lived up to this title quite thoroughly. Most of his almost 6,000 paintings resound with that motif. Aivazovsky was a marine painter to his very core. 

Chekov’s line “worthy of Aivazovsky's brush" became a winged word.
“The Ninth Wave” (1850) is arguably  Aivazovsky's most famous work

Remarkably enough, Aivazovsky never took to the new-fangled notion of painting en plein air, Romantic attitude or not, and he didn’t cut a Heathcliffe-like figure of maniacally brushing with his easel pushed into the sands of a windswept coast, with the elements in turmoil and the storm ruffling his titanic sideburns. He actually worked quite peacefully in his studio, painting solely from memory, sometimes blending elements of the new Realistic art forms with his seasoned and well-liked Romantic approach and managed to preserve the esteem of his official Imperial clients, established Academic artists and critics as well as the respect of the representatives of Russia’s budding modern art, even if he was considered old-fashioned. No artist can uphold the same level of quality over a working period that spans six decades and several thousand works, however, his masterpieces, monolithic and isolated due to the voluntarily limited range of Aivazovsky’s sujet, stand out as some of the finest pieces of marine and landscape art and not only of Russian or 19th century painting.

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