Ivan Aivazovsky (1817 - 1900)



December 1, 2005
London, United Kingdom

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124.5 by 167.5cm., 49 by 66in.

signed in Cyrillic l.l. and dated 1869

oil on canvas


Mount Ararat, is an important recent rediscovery and welcome addition to current Aivazovsky scholarship. It was painted a year after the artist undertook a personal mid-life odyssey to Armenia in 1868. There remains a great cycle of works painted on this trip, several held in national museum collections in Armenia and Georgia which chart the cities and landscapes of Transcaucasia. It is an area of hauntingly beautiful vistas stirred by shifting national borders and intermittent political strife.

Of Armenian parentage, Aivazovsky was born in Feodosia on the Black Sea coast. Armenian displacement was common throughout the ages and a large diaspora lived there, sustaining and developing the local economy. Feodosia formed part of the vast Russian Empire, its cultural epicentre being St. Petersburg thousands of miles away in Northern Europe. Aivazovsky's natural genius for drawing brought him to the attention of the mayor of Feodosia who secured him a place at the prestigious Academy of Arts in the Russian capital.

Whilst training at the Academy Aivazovsky learnt the art of diplomacy, necessary when conversing with potential Imperial and noble patrons. His attractive marine scenes were popular and he became an overnight sensation and important commissions followed. Despite these successes, he remained very conscious of his roots, and a deep love of his land and people compelled him to return to Feodosia, where he opened a studio overlooking the Black Sea. Out of touch from the contemporary art scene in St. Petersburg and Moscow, his paintings became insular and slightly repetitive, attracting criticism amongst highbrow critics. Russian art historian Alexander Benois noted that he stood apart from the 19th century Russian school of painting and art critic Vladimir Stasov only accepted his early work as worthy of acclaim. Despite the precocious maturing of his genius in the 1840s, slow development followed; a master of the sea in all its moods, he himself was no artistic pioneer.

A sensitivity to the politics of the region and the uncertain fate of the Armenians prompted him to became a public figure alongside his work as an artist. He was a self-appointed spokesperson for Armenian affairs, a dutiful Feodosian civilian, philanthropist and, towards the end of his life, a political activist. He remained equally indebted to the Empire and was a Russophile, counting many famous Russians among personal friends and painted an important cycle of works inspired by Pushkin, not an obvious choice of subject matter for a marine artist. He honoured the legacy of his Russian education and patronage by opening the third public gallery in the Russian Empire beneath his house in Feodosia.

His journey to Ararat in 1868 took in a perilous crossing of the Daryal Pass (see fig 1) and a visit to Tbilisi (see fig 2), both painted in the same year. It is a puzzle that Mount Ararat appears in so few of the artist's works -- not more than a dozen are known from a total output of over 6000 works. Perhaps this is because travel in the region was difficult, the 1860s being a time of relative peace. Certainly the offered lot highlights the mountain's undisturbed tranquillity and majesty.

The highest mountain in the Caucasus, Mount Ararat is a source of ancient myth and legend. It is one of the world's most perfectly formed mountains and is said to have hallucinatory powers. In the Bible "Ararat" is described as the final resting place of Noah's Ark. In ancient times, however, Ararat was the name for the country of Armenia, a fact which little deterred pilgrims from searching the mountain itself. In 1876 an English academic, James Bryce, first claimed to have discovered part of the ark on Ararat, which attracted yet more explorers. Aivazovsky's best known painting of the mountain refers to this legend (see fig 3). It depicts the descent of the prophet Noah from the mountain with a train of animals and believers in his wake. The painting was saved from destruction by Martiros Sarayan during World War I, and is now located in the National Gallery of Armenia in Yerevan.

In the 1890s, the final decade of Aivazovsky's life, there was a new level of threat to the Armenians from their Turkish neighbours. In this period Aivazovsky painted several works relating to the ancient history of the Armenians (see fig 4), and also recorded atrocities committed against them in a series of large compositions which he sent to public exhibition in Moscow and Odessa: The Massacre of Armenians in Trebizond, 1895 and The Tragedy at the Sea of Marmara, 1897. From the 1920s Mount Ararat became part of Turkey but the mountain still encapsulates Armenia's identity and remains a potent and distinctive national symbol.
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The Russian Sale

December 1, 2005, 12:00 AM EST

London, United Kingdom