Lessons from the Past – Ivan Aivazovsky


Hello, my name is Dmitry Fesechko, I am an Artist from Moscow and some of you might know me. Some time ago my friend Jay Martin offered me the chance to write about art, eventually not only did I take him up on the idea, I am also a full team member of figurementors.com! We are hoping to not only show you some amazing Art but to show that we can take inspiration and techniques from the true Masters and implement in our own figure painting work! I had thought for some time and decided that I want to start by introducing some Russian artists to you, the first being Ivan Aivazovsky, maybe the most well-known Russian artist.

IVAN AIVAZOVSKY – a man who stopped seawaves


Self Portrait

He was born in 1817 in Theodosia, a port city in Crimea in the family of an Armenian merchant. So in fact he had Armenian origins. His family was not rich and when he was a boy he had to work in a local restaurant. He always heard a lot of different languages there, saw a lot of ships and vessels in the port. The nature of Crimea is also very fascinating and all of this played a great role in becoming one of the most famous Romantic marine artists all over the world.

His talents were first shown up in music. He could repeat melodies by hearing when he was playing his violin. But the fate prepared a different role for him. Though his passion to violin helped in it. A local architect Jacob Koch heard a young boy playing music and it made him to pay attention on the Ivan’s amateur drawings. Jacob understood that the boy is very talented and gave him some art lessons. He also provided him different art materials as paints, paper, pencils. A little bit later Jacob asked his friend, Taurida Governor, Alexander Kaznacheev to help young Ivan to get a good art education. And in 1830 Ivan got to Russian gymnasium and later in 1833 he finally moved to the capital of the empire St. Petersburg to start the study in the Imperial Academy of Arts.


Karl Brullov’s The Last Day of Pompeii

During his education he was very amazed by the romanticism genre painting of Karl Bryullov “The last day of Pompeii”, and it influenced him a lot for all of his life.

In 1836 Aivazovsky joined battle-painting class and had a chance to take part in Baltic Fleet exercises. I think this is a moment when he finally decided to be a romantic marine artist. In 1837 Ivan graduated from Imperial Academy of Arts with a gold medal, two years earlier than he should. Gold medal meant that he had a right for full paid trip to Western Europe for educational purposes however, the directorship of the Academy had decided that first he should move to his native Theodosia city for two years and only then would he be allowed his trip. So he did. He worked there for two years painting his famous Crimean sea landscapes. That time he became acquainted with some admirals of Russian Imperial Navy: Mikhail Lazarev, Pavel Nakhimov and Vladimir Kornilov that would later play a role in election of Aivazovsky as an “official artist of the Russian Navy”.

In 1840 Ivan Aivazovsky finally started his foreign trip. He visited Italy, Germany, France, Holland and Spain and his exhibitions had a great success. In Italy, The Art Gazette published a big article on his success:

“Aivazovsky’s pictures in Rome are judged the best in the exhibition. Neapolitan Night, The Storm and Chaos have caused such a sensation in the capital of the fine arts that the palaces of noblemen and society venues are all astir with the fame of the landscape painter from southern Russia: the newspapers have sung his praises loudly and all are unanimous that only Aivazovsky is able to depict light, air and water so truly and convincingly. Pope Gregory XVI has purchased his picture Chaos and had it hung in the Vatican, where only the pictures of the world’s greatest artists are considered worthy of a place. His Chaos is generally held to be quite unlike anything seen before; it is said to be a miracle of artistry.”


The incredible “Chaos”

Nikolai Gogol, a famous Russian-Ukrainian writer wrote about the Chaos painting: “Your Chaos caused a chaos in a Vatican”. Anyway later this painting was removed from Vatican to one of the museums in Venetia. During his trip Ivan also met a well-known English marine artist Joseph Mallord William Turner and he was so much amazed by Aivazovsky’s work “The bay of Naples in moonlit” that he even wrote some poetry (as I know the original one was in Italian).

“In this your picture
Of a mighty king
I see the moon, all gold and silver
Forgive me if I err, great artist
Reflected in the sea below
Your picture has entranced me so
And on the surface of the sea
Reality and art are one
There plays a breeze which leaves a trail
And I am all amazement
Of trembling ripples, like a shower
So noble, powerful is the art
Of fiery sparks or else the gleaming headdress
That only genius could inspire”


The Bay of Naples in Moonlight – a stunning achievement of lighting

In France he received a gold medal from the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture. Later, in 1857 he will be granted a Legion of Honour order by Paris Academy. In 1844 the Amsterdam Academy honoured him with the title of academician. After his returning to Russia the Council of the Academy also honoured him with a title of academician. Nicholas I, the then Russian Emperor decided to attach him to the Chief Naval Staff “with the title of painter to the Staff and with the right to wear the uniform of the naval ministry”.

Now Ivan had an ability to take a part in Russian Imperial Navy expeditions. In 1846 a whole Black sea fleet visited him in Theodosia to celebrate 10 years of his creative activity for Russian Navy, eventually he would make a painting portraying this event, but much later – in 1890.



Black Fleet Greets

I think you are becoming a little bit tired of the biography of Ivan. Let me briefly lead it to the end and I will you tell you about some of his paintings and technique. Aivazovsky had travelled a lot during his life. He visited Turkey, Greece, Caucasus, USA, Europe, Egypt. He portrayed a lot of historical events as the Independence war of Greece, Italian Unification, Crimean War, Russo-Turkish wars and many more. During his life he had created about 6000 paintings! He lived in Theodosia until his death in 1900. He built there a beautiful manor, opened an art school, insisted on building railroad to his hometown. In 2012 his painting “View of Constantinople and Bosphorus” was sold on Sotheby’s auction for $5.2 million.


View of Constantinople and Bosphorus – rich colours and illumination sets the ambience


No one will doubt that the sea is one of the most dynamic natural scene. Making a lot of sketches or painting “en plein air” usually does not help much in such complex conditions. Ivan has understood it very early. From his early childhood he used to observe nature. He had a very good memory, as I mentioned before he could repeat melodies without musical education at all. So he used this talent as an artist. He was a studio artist, always working indoors. Sometimes he made some sketches, but they were well, just really very rough sketches. Here is one of them:


one of the brief sketches, outlines, composition and basic volumes only

Yet he spent a lot of time observing nature, sunrises and sunsets and the oceans. Once being in Biarritz in France his friend Ilya Ostroukhov accompanied Ivan. Walking on the seashore Aivazovsky suddenly stood still watching the sea. Then he took his small notebook and drew three lines: one for the horizon and two for the seawave. Then he asked Ilya to spend some more time there to catch in memory the light he needed. In the evening he started to work in the studio and the next day the painting was ready.



Did he work the same way all the time? Of course not, no. Though he painted really fast, people were fascinated by his bright and vivid colours and by the transparency of the sea. To achieve such effect he had to use saturated but translucent paints. He always tried to make the sky during one session. In fact he always made it in one session, except clouds, trying to make the rest of the painting sketchy to leave it drying. Ivan would find the brightest point in the sky to start from and then he would move to the darker areas. In this way he could make a tonal composition that would further allow him to paint the sea glowing from inside. Here is one of the examples of his unfinished works.


blowing ship – unfinished but so vibrant and alive

When the under-layer dried he proceeded to paint the sea with transparent paints and adding details to the rest of the work. Usually he would create a painting in 3 sessions. The most complex works took him maximum of 10 days to finish. On paintings that were made in one day he also painted water with transparent paints, leaving the white primer of the canvas shining through instead of using white paint. Interesting fact – in later years it is well-known that he preferred German paints “Mewes” but there is also some references that sometimes he used English “Winsor and Newton” paints. He always had Peach Black, Lead White, Blue Cobalt, Ultramarine, Cinnabar Red, Cadmium (Red, Yellow, Orange), Yellow Ochre and Mars Brown on his pallette.


the artist’s chair and palette


It is considered that the “Ninth wave” is the most known painting of Ivan Aivazovsky. Many people think that this was his best work yet definitely not for me, I do not like neither colors nor the composition. But anyway let me tell you some words about it. What is the ninth wave? It comes from the sailor legends of the most deadly wave in the Sea or the Ocean. In the ancient Greece the third wave used to be considered as the most deadly.

In Rome it was the tenth wave. But Ivan was living in a port city and he usually heard stories from sailors that it was the ninth wave that was the most deadly. As usual, a confrontation of man and nature can be seen in this painting.  The composition is full of dramatis, on the one hand we know the legend and understand that people would probably die. On the other hand the colour and light give us some hope. People on the mast are doing their best trying to save themselves. One sailor helps another one, whilst yet another sailor is trying to cheer up his friends. Who will win this fight?


the legendary Ninth Wave


The story behind this painting is really interesting. It happened during the Russo-Turkish war 1828-1829 that started because of the Greek Independence War. Three ships of the Russian Navy (frigate Standard, brig Mercury and brig Orpheus) were patrolling the sea when they suddenly met a reasonably sized Turkish fleet which consisted of about 14 ships. Orpheus and Standard successfully retreated but Mercury had the worst speed of the three, after some consultations the commander Kazarsky decided to join the battle.

First plan was simple – to ram one of the Turkish ships and blow up the Mercury. The Turkish 110 cannon ship “Selimie” first overtook the Mercury that had only 20 cannons yet when Selimie prepared for boarding, Mercury gave a full shot and damaged the vaterstag and parrels of Selimie that led its marszeil and bramzeil (sails) to dysfunction. The second Turkish ship “Real-bei” had just got close enough to the Mercury on the other side. The second shot from the other deck followed and it damaged studding sails of Real-bei which dropped to the deck. Such luck allowed Mercury to exit the battle and sail away with four men dead and 6 others injured. You can find a very short story on wiki https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brig_%22Mercury%22_Attacked_by_Two_Turkish_Ships


Brig Mercury attacked by two Turkish ships


Of course Aivazovsky is considered to be a great marine artists he still painted a lot of great canvases that depict not only the sea. He has painted some portraits but they are really not good so much. People was his kind of weakness and he knew it. Using your strong traits avoiding weaknesses is also a talent.

He very liked to visit Caucasus region and these paintings are awesome. They are full of volumetric light, their perfect light conditions and composition show the mastery of the artist. Travelling around the world such countries as Egypt also inspired him to make some works on the religious thematic.


For me Ivan Aivazovsky always was a master of the “stormy sea”. He was always leaving some kind of “ray of hope” in such paintings. It could be some light piercing the clouds or maybe the colour of the composition that made it not so tragic but offered some kind of optimism. He could also depict the rage of the sea like nobody else.


Being a master of the storm he realised the other side of the coin too – calmness and tranquility that could be better expressed in morning landscapes. Observing such paintings I can almost feel that air and fog coming from the canvas.


What can we learn from master Ivan Aivazovsky?  I think that the most important thing is usefulness and helpfulness of observation. In our high rhythm life we forget how it is important sometimes just to stop for a while and watch the nature, people surrounding us. When we see something beautiful in our world we are taking a phone, making photos and then maybe looking to this photo we realise the beauty instead of just stopping for a while and silently, catching the  moment that would fulfill us with new emotions that we need so much in our art.

We usually think that just observing something is a waste of time yet we forget that in such moments our subconscious is recording a million invisible processes and that sometimes you just don’t need to make a million of sketches to understand something, sometimes you just need some time of calm observation. Aivazovsky is a great example of such a method, spending hours in some kind of meditation and then only seconds for the sketching.

The second thing is working in some kind of trance. Making yourself to be totally absorbed by your idea. Painting fast, maybe 25 hours a day not to lose this definite mood and feelings that made you start your project. This is not an instruction. It is hard to work this way. But sometimes this kind of experience is something that you really need. You can always clean up and add some details later. But transferring overall impression quickly is important. There is much more sincerity and truth expressed in such a way. That’s why I always try to sketch the whole model in first session. Making different parts on the model one by one can lead that the final result will come apart and the final composition will not be seen as something whole.

In addition, you can also use colour themes of Ivan’s paintings. Pay attention how he transferred different emotions through the colour. Soft pastel combinations for calmness, high contrast for disquiet, highlights and complimentary light for leading the eye. To be honest one name does not leave my mind when I am writing this article. It is Jean Diorama, sorry, don’t know his real surname. Take a look at his works that sometimes remind Aivazovsky in this expressions through the water and light. http://www.jbadiorama.com/dioramas

And if you like works of Ivan Aivazovsky  then you see more of them on wikiart for examplehttps://www.wikiart.org/en/ivan-aivazovsky

Thank you for reading, I really hope that you enjoyed it and I encourage you to leave comments, I hope you found it interesting and useful to incorporate into your own painting. Kind regards


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