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Painter to Four Tsars, Two Sultans and a Pope

The Russian artist Ivan Aivazovsky may have been derided by the avant-garde, but his dreamy seascapes and atmospheric panoramas won him patrons in high places. Ivan Samarine rediscovers a 19th-century virtuoso

Few artists have been as convincing in the depiction of water as the Crimean-born painter Ivan Aivazovsky. His extraordinary talent, combined with his ox-like stamina and astute business sense, lifted him out of the provincial poverty of his birthplace to the centre of the European cultural stage. By the end of a lifetime that spanned almost the entire nineteenth century his patrons included four Russian emperors, two Ottoman sultans and the Pope. Derided by the intellectual avant-garde, he was adored by the new middle classes from Alexandria to St Petersburg.

Aivazovsky worked swiftly and ceaselessly, often painting entire pictures in a day. This was out of both habit and necessity: the thinly applied colour washes that are the trademark of his skies and the foundation for his calm seas had to be applied in one session if they were to appear seamless. By his own estimate he painted 6,000 pictures; this number has been increased several fold by an international industry of fakers. Inevitably, Aivazovsky’s work is uneven, and his detractors’ frequent accusation that he repeated himself is difficult to deny. His talent was that of a master craftsman, whose profound knowledge of his tools allowed him to conjure up dramatic images whenever he wished.

He nearly always worked in his studio in the Crimea, never painting from nature, and boasted that “A storm that I saw off the coast of Italy…I moved to some place in the Crimea or the Caucasus; with moonrays reflected in the waters of the Bosphorus, I light up Sebastapol.”

Aivazovsky’s technique served him best for seas and townscapes. When the two are combined, as in his panoramas of Istanbul (which he visited frequently, and where he was befriended by Sultan Abdülaziz, whom he taught to paint), his art is unsurpassed.

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Issue 22, 2000/2001 The Sultan’s Chalet
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Other Highlights from Cornucopia 22
  • Music to a Sultan’s Ears

    Visitors to 1830s Istanbul were astonished to hear the strains of Rossini and Donizetti performed by Ottoman bands. As Emre Aracı reveals, Western music was the passion of Mahmud II

  • The Sultan’s Chalet

    The world’s grandest chalet was built by Abdülhamid II for the visit of Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1889 and was a powerhouse of political activity in the final years of the empire. Today the house in the grounds of Yıldız Palace, on a hill in Istanbul, is all but forgotten. Philip Mansel treads softly through its silent halls. Photographs by Fritz von der Schulenburg

  • Hot news from Kula

    To save its fine architecture, a volcanologist has come up with a plan: to turn Kula into an elegant spa town by tapping its plentiful thermal springs. By Roger Williams. Photographs by Jean Marie del Moral and Roger Williams

  • Meatball Wizard

    Three köftes still stand out in my memory. Just thinking of them makes my taste buds ache. The first was in my early childhood: freshly grilled cizbiz kofte, a round patty the size of a flattened walnut, so named because it makes a delicious ‘jiz-biz’ sizzling sound as it cooks…
    More cookery features

  • The Secret Garden of Kasnak

    High in the Toros Mountains, Chris Gardener finds the remote Kasnak Forest carpeted with peonies in spring. Photographs by Kate Clow

Buy the issue
Issue 22, 2000/2001 The Sultan’s Chalet
£8.00 / $10.43 / 345.08 TL
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