Aivazovsky: The Man Behind Russia’s Greatest Seascapes

PHOTO by Vladimir Vyatkin / RIA Novosti
8 lesser-known facts from the life of Russia's best marine painter

Russian painter Ivan Aivazovsky left a legacy as varied and as breathtaking as the ocean waves which inspired him.

In a nation of great artists, the prolific legacy and vibrant seascapes of painter Ivan Aivazovsky has secured his place as a household name across Russia. Inspired by the changing moods of the sea, Aivazovsky created more than 6,000 paintings and held over 125 solo exhibitions during his career.

A Man of Many Names

Aivazovsky was born into an Armenian family and baptized Hovhannes Aivazian. After settling in Feodosia, Crimea, his father Konstantin (Gevorg) adopted a Polish version of the family name - Gaivazovsky. A contracted form of the surname (“Gai”) appears on Aivazovsky’s works painted before the 1840s. It was only in 1841 that the artist officially changed his name to Ivan Aivazovsky.

A View of the Sea

The legend that Aivazovsky painted the sea without ever having seen it in real life is a common misconception. Born and raised in Crimea, Aivazovsky considered the sea to be his natural element, and missed the ocean waves when he was sent to grammar school in St. Petersburg. The legend may be based on Aivazovsky’s declaration that the beauty and majesty of the waves could never be truly captured in paintings. Yet Aivazovsky did frequently paint his works from memory in a studio which overlooked the yard, rather than the seashore.

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The Brush and the Violin Bow

Aivazovsky’s talents extended beyond painting. He was a superb violinist and frequently entertained his visitors with home concerts. The Russian composer Mikhail Glinka was amongst those lucky enough to see a performance. He later included a Tatar melody played by Aivazovsky in his opera Ruslan and Ludmila.

A Feat for the Eyes

Aivazovsky preferred quiet family evenings to glamourous receptions. When he was giving a party, he always tried to surprise his guests with something unusual. The artist would personally choose the menu together with the chef, and even suggested creative names for the dishes. The names were often based on the titles of Aivazovsky’s paintings: his guests could try the Black Sea soup, Haven pies, Azov Sea sauce, and North Sea ice-cream; while drinks included Vesuvius punch and champagne called From the Calm to Hurricane. Aivazovsky was particularly fond of champagne. Before a party, the artist would replace the labels on the champagne bottles with pictures of his own making, most of which showed the turbulent sea.

Chaos in the Vatican

Aivazovsky’s contemporaries often joked that he brought chaos to Europe. Aivazovsky’s painting, Chaos: Creation of the World, which impressed the Pope of Rome so much that he asked to buy it. The artist chose to give his work to the pontifex as a gift, an act of generosity which made him world-famous. “A little man came to Rome from the banks of the Neva River and worked Chaos in the Vatican,” author Nikolai Gogol wrote. The painting is now on display in the San Lazzaro museum in Venice.

Zelfira Tregulova, director of Tretyakov Gallery

Appearance in the Louvre

Ivan Aivazovsky became the first Russian artist to be exhibited in the Louvre. He was also awarded the prestigious gold medal by the French Academy for his artistic achievements. Today, Aivazovsky’s works are still in demand on the global art market. His View of Constantinople and the Bosphorus was sold at Sotheby’s for $5.2 million in April 2012.

The Adoptive Grandson

Aivazovsky had four daughters by his first wife and 10 grandchildren. The artist loved his children, although bemoaned his lack of male heirs. Shortly before death, Aivazovsky wrote a petition to Emperor Nicholas II saying: “I have no sons, but God blessed me with daughters and grandchildren. Wishing to preserve the family name of Aivazovsky, I have adopted Mikhail Lattry, my grandson by my eldest daughter. I humbly request permission to bequeath my surname, my family crest and the privileges of my aristocratic title to my adoptive son Mikhail.” The tsar granted Aivazovsky’s wish; however, the artist didn’t live to receive the royal consent. Mikhail Lattry was the only member of Aivazovsky’s family to inherit the name of his illustrious ancestor. He also went on to become a professional painter.

The Last Seascape

In the morning of April 19, 1900 Aivazovsky was stood in front of the easel in his studio in Feodosia. The new picture, The Explosion of the Turkish Ship, showed a heroic scene of Greek resistance against the Turks. By the end of the day the battle scene was finally taking shape; the central part was taken up by a vessel sending flames and billowing smoke in the air. The painting was to remain unfinished. Aivazovsky died that night in his sleep.