When Aivazovsky began his career, Russian art was still dominated by Romanticism and it was the romantic mood which set the terms for Russian landscape painting in the second half of the nineteenth century. It is scarcely surprising then to discover romantic elements both in Aivazovsky's early works, and in the majority of his later ones. One reflection of this is his choice of subjects again and again we find him depicting shipwrecks, raging sea battles and storms.
Aivazovsky continued in the tradition of the great Russian landscape painters of the early nineteenth century without recourse to imitation. He created a new tradition, a new school of painting, thus making his mark on the marine painting of his own and subsequent generations.
In 1833 Aivazovsky entered the St Petersburg Academy of Arts.
Aivazovsky's student days in St Petersburg coincided with a confused and in many ways contradictory phase in Russian history. On the one hand it was a period of harsh tyranical rule and political stagnation under Tsar Nicholas I, on the other it witnessed a great flowering of Russian culture, beginning after the Napoleonic War of 1812. This was the age of Pushkin, Gogol, Lermontov, Belinsky, Glinka and Brulloff. Within the Academy the canons of Classicism, closely linked to ideas of civic duty and patriotism, still held sway, but the new stirrings of Romanticism were also discernible.
The great success of Karl Brulloff 's picture
The Last Day of Pompeii
made a lasting impression on Aivazovsky, summing up as it did the victory of the Romantic school in Russian painting. Both the picture and Brulloff himself played an important part in stimulating Aivazovsky's own creative development. Furthermore, Aivazovsky was brought up in the romantic spirit by his teacher in the Academy landscape class, M. Vorobyov. In general Russian art of the first half of the nineteenth century combined Romanticism with Realism and very often both principles found expression in an artist's works. This was especially evident in landscape painting, an essentially realist art form which continued romantic features for a long time. Aivazovsky acquired a romantic outlook in his student years and maintained it in maturity. He remained to the end one of the most faithful disciples of Romanticism, although this did not prevent him from evolving his own form of realism.
By the 1850s the romantic element in Aivazovsky's work had become even more apparent. This is clearly seen in one of Aivazovsky's best and most famous pictures, The Ninth Wave. A group of shipwrecked survivors is about to be engulfed by an enormous wave. The merciless pounding of the elements is brilliantly conveyed as the waves roll, rise up and crash down with full force, having revealed for a moment the deep chasm below. The restless movement of clouds and sprays of foam strengthen the impression of a raging hurricane. Despite this the people clinging to a broken mast still struggle for life—the sun has just risen and its rays pierce the watery chaos, increasing just a little their chance of survival. The essential tragedy of the picture is outweighed by the vividness of the impression it makes: the spectator understands the horror of the storm but his feelings are won over by its beauty. This duality is typical of Aivazovsky, but it was present too in Brulloff 's famous picture
The Last Day of Pompeii.
The Last Day of Pompeii and The Ninth Wave are separated by seventeen years and differ widely in their genre as well as in their place in the history of Russian art; but stylistically they stand together and represent the rise of Romanticism both in the individual development of the two artists and in Russian art as whole.
May 11, 1865.
In ocean waves there's melody
There's harmony within the clash of elements,
And a harmonious tuneful whisper
Streams through the rippling rushes.
There's unperturbable order everywhere,
Full consonance in nature,
And only our illusory freedom
Is out of tune with her.
Whence, how did this dischord arise?
And why, amidst the universal chorus,
Do human souls not sing as does the sea,
Why does the sentient reed sigh?
And from the earth unto the highest stars
Unanswered to this very day
A voice lamenting in the wilderness,
The soul protests despairingly?
Translated by Athena