THIS WEEK IN ARMENIAN HISTORY
(Prepared by the Armenian National Education Committee [ANEC])
Birth of Ivan Aivazovsky
(July 29, 1817)
Ivan Aivazovsky is considered one of the greatest marine painters in history. Famous Russian story writer Anton Chekhov popularized the winger word “worthy of Aivazovsky’s brush,” used for “describing something ineffably lovely.”
Aivazovsky was born Hovhannes Aivazian on July 29, 1817, in Feodosia, a port on the Black Sea in Crimea. He received parochial education at the local St. Sargis Armenian Church and was taught drawing by a local architect. He attended the Russian gymnasium of Simferopol from 1830-1833 and then studied at the Imperial Academy of Arts from 1833-1837, graduating with gold medal two years in advance.
The promising painter was sent by the Academy in 1840 to study in Europe. He first traveled to Venice, where his brother Gabriel was a member of the Mekhitarist Congregation (he would leave the congregation and return to the Armenian Apostolic Church in the 1850s). Aivazovsky studied Armenian manuscripts and became familiar with Armenian art. After a four year sojourn in Italy and France, with visits to half a dozen European countries and prolific exhibitions, he returned to Russia in 1844.
Upon his return, he was appointed academician of the Imperial Academy of Arts, from where he had graduated seven years before, and appointed the official artist of the Russian Navy. After traveling to the Aegean Sea and Constantinople in 1845, he settled in his hometown, Feodosia. The Academy gave him a title of professor of seascape painting in 1847, while the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences elected him a member in the same year.
He married English governess Julia Graves in 1848 and had four daughters. They separated in 1860 and divorced in 1877 with permission from the Armenian Church, since Graves was a Lutheran.
Aivazovsky would receive many honors throughout his life: first non-French artist to receive the Legion d’Honneur in France (1857), Order of the Medjidie (Ottoman Empire, 1857), honorary member of the Moscow Art Society (1857), Order of the Redeemer (Greece, 1859), Order of St. Vladimir (Russia, 1865), Order of Osmanieh (Ottoman Empire, 1874), member of the Academy of Arts of Florence (Italy, 1876), honorary member of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of Stuttgart (Germany, 1878), and others. He held fifty-five solo exhibitions over the course of his career in the Russian Empire, Europe, and the United States (New York, Chicago, and San Francisco, 1893), and participated in many collective exhibitions. He was one of the most prolific artists of his time: he created around 6,000 paintings during his almost sixty-year career. The vast majority of his works are seascapes, but he often depicted battle scenes, Armenian themes, and portraiture. He never painted his pictures from nature, but from memory. His artistic memory was legendary, The Ninth Wave (1850, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg) is generally considered his masterpiece.
Aivazovsky visited Russian Armenia for the first time in 1868. The next year, he participated in the opening ceremony of the Suez Canal in Egypt, and became the first artist to paint the Canal. He continued his travels abroad during the next three decades, including a trip to the United States in 1892. In 1880, he opened an art gallery in his Feodosia house, which became the third museum in the Russian Empire, after the Hermitage Museum of St. Petersburg and the Tretyakov Gallery of Moscow. Two years later, he remarried to a young Armenian widow, Anna Burnazian. He said that he “became closer to [his] nation” by marrying her. His career across the civil ranks of Russian government reached its highest position in 1896 when, at the age of 79, he was promoted to the rank of full privy councillor.
Aivazovsky was deeply affected by the Hamidian massacres of 1894 and 1896. He painted a number of works on the subject. More symbolically, he threw the medals given to him by the Ottoman Sultan into the sea and told the Turkish consul in Feodosia: “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.” He spent his last years in his hometown, to which he contributed many efforts to its improvement.
Aivazovsky passed away on May 2, 1900, in Feodosia and was buried in the courtyard of the St. Sarkis Church. A quote in Classical Armenian from Movses Khorenatsi’s History of Armenia is engraved on his tombstone: “Born as a mortal, left an immortal memory of himself.