Ivan Aivazovsky

Portrait of Ivan Aivazovsky

Ivan Aivazovsky was a Russian Romantic painter who is considered one of the greatest masters of marine art. He studied at the Imperial Academy of Arts in St Petersburg. He was appointed as the main painter to the Russian navy although he had a number of solo exhibitions throughout Europe and the United States. Although most of his work was about the sea, he also painted battle scenes. He was born in Feodosia, a port in the Crimean Peninsula to an Armenian Family on 29th July 1829 and died there on 19th April in 1900 aged 70.

Major Works

“Chaos” (The Creation) (1841)
“The Ninth Wave” (1850)
“The Rainbow” (1873)
“The Black Sea” (1881)
“Descent of Noah from Ararat” (1889)
“The Wave” (1889)


Ivan Aivazovsky was born on 17th July 1817 in Feodosiya in the Crimea. His Armenian trader father Konstantin Aivazovsky had moved there some years before from Austria. Due to the plague epidemic of 1812 the family had become impoverished. He was educated at the main school in Simferopol where he learned to play the violin but drawing was his chief passion.

1833: He enters the St Petersburg Academy of Arts with the help of A. Kaznacheyev, the Feodosiya town-governor who had seen him sketching on the town walls in charcoal. This institution was still a bastion of classicism and patriotism but there was a fledgling spirit of Romanticism just beginning. Karl Bryullov’s painting “The Last Day of Pompeii” made a great impression on the young student. He was tutored by M. Vorobyov who was also keen on Romanticism. One of the people he meets in St Petersburg is the composer Mikhail Glinka.

1836: He takes part in a training exercise of the Baltic Sea naval fleet on the advice of another of his teachers A. Sauerweid who hoped he would go on to depict sea battle themes. The Art Gazette noted the artist’s poetic gift when reviewing one of his early works. He is introduced to Alexander Pushkin at an Academy exhibition.

1837: He completes his studies at the Academy. He wins the great gold medal for “Calm in the Gulf of Finland” and “The Great Roads at Kronstadt”  which meant that the Academy would pay for a further course of study abroad. Strangely the Academy said that he had to paint for two years in the Crimea and complete several works before he was allowed to go to Italy.

1839: The commander of the Caucasus Coast Line, N. Rayevsky suggests that he take part in the exercises of the Black Sea fleet and he makes three trips with them. He was welcomed by the Navy and won respect from several Admirals.

1840: In the summer he returns to St Petersburg and meets several Russian intellectuals including Nikolai Gogol and then sets off for Rome, arriving there in September. His paintings were popular in Italy and he exhibited in several shows. The Art Gazette heard of his fame and said that “The Storm and Chaos” painting in particular caused a sensation in the capital of the fine arts. Pope Gregory XVI even purchased the picture and hung it in the Vatican.

1842: He shows some paintings in Paris with the permission of the Academy. 

1843: The Council of the Paris Academy award him first their gold medal. 

1844: The English painter Joseph Mallord William Turner on a trip to Italy was so amazed by the quality of “The Bay of Naples on a Moonlit Night” that he wrote a eulogy in Italian to Aivazovsky. Aivazovsky asked for permission to return to Russia early and he returned via Holland exhibiting in Amsterdam on the way. The Amsterdam Academy bestowed on him the title of Academician. Once back in St Petersburg the Council of the Academy there also created him an Academician and with orders from the Tsar himself, he was attached to the Chief Naval Staff as a painter with the right to wear a naval uniform.

1845: In the spring he sets off on a voyage around the coasts of Asia Minor and Greece on a ship commanded by Admiral F. Lutke, who was also the founder of the Russian Geographical Society. On his return he goes back to the Crimea and he was to stay in Feodosiya for the rest of his life. He did travel extensively, to St Petersburg and Moscow for exhibitions from time to time and even visited Turkey and America but the call of home was what gave him the most inspiration.

1846: The Navy marked the tenth anniversary of Aivazovsky’s artistic career and Admiral Kornilov sent a number of battleships from Sevastopol to congratulate him.

1850: He paints “The Tenth Wave“. 

1851: He holds his second exhibition in Moscow.

1853: During the Crimean War of 1853-56 Aivazovsky spends some time in the besieged town of Sevastopol and makes some sketches there and even holds an exhibition. 

1857: He has an exhibition in Paris and is awarded the Legion of Honour by France. 

1865: He opens an art school in Feodosiya and becomes a professor at the St Petersburg Academy of Arts.

1867: The Greeks living on Crete start a rebellion against Turkish rule. Aivazovsky had always felt a special affinity with them and their struggle for liberation and he now decided to paint “On the Island of Crete” about the rebellion.

1868: He travels through the Caucasus.

1869: He visits Egypt as he is invited to the opening of the Suez Canal, which he paints.

1871: He builds an Historical and Archaeological Museum in Feodosiya.

1872: He visits Nice and Florence.

1873: He paints “The Rainbow”.

1876: He becomes a Member of the Academy of Arts in Florence.

1878: He paints “Moonlit Sea”

1879: He travels to Genoa to find material about Christopher Columbus.

1880: He opens the Feodosiya Picture Gallery.

1881: Many consider his finest painting completed in this year to be “The Black Sea”. The critic Ivan Kramskoi wrote “There is nothing in it but sky and water, yet the water is a boundless ocean, not rough, but restless, severe, infinite, and the sky is, if possible, more infinite still. It is one of the most powerful pictures I know.” He was to make over 6,000 paintings and drawings in his career as a whole.

1884: He travels down the Volga river.

1887: He paints a picture of Alexander Pushkin standing by the sea.

1892: He visits New York and Washington and visits Niagra Falls. 

1898: He paints “Amidst the Waves”.

Ivan Aivazovsky died on 19th April 1900 at home in Feodosiya and was buried at the Armenian Church of St Sergius (Surb Sarkis) in the town.

Further information

Some examples of paintings by Aivazovsky.

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