The final third of the nineteenth century witnessed a flowering of realism in all genres of Russian art. It was then that the members of the Society for Circulating Art Exhibitions (the Peredvizhniki) were creating their best works, and names like
Shishkin and Levitan came to the fore. Aivazovsky's talent also took a new direction at the beginning of the 1870s. The somewhat sugary picturesqueness of his early works gave way to a more realist vision of the world. The romantic tension does not leave his pictures but takes on a sterner, more restrained character.
Aivazovsky's greatest achievement in this period is The Black Sea (1881). Here the artist created a generalized image of the marine elements in their ever-changing manifestations. The distant horizon is calm, but towards the foreground the sea gets rougher and waves break the smooth surface of the water. In the immediate foreground the water forms great waves, crested here and there by foam. Their measured rocking movement and the vastness of the sea are conveyed with exceptional power. So far the water has only begun to seethe, yet its motion is already relentless and frightening. The fine blue of the sky is being overtaken by a dense, grey wall of clouds; coloured shadows appear on the water with dappled patches and highlights—some blue, some turquoise or pure green—just as in reality.
Ivan Kramskoy, who was a discerning and sensitive critic, wrote of this picture: "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."
Just as the ocean cradles our earth's orb,
This earthly life's by dreams surrounded;
Night falls, against the shore
The waters beat in roaring waves.
This is its voice: it beckons us and calls . . .
The magic bark is stirring in its mooring;
The tide swells up and sweeps us rapidly away
Into the fathomless dark waves.
The heavenly vault, ablaze with glorious stars,
Gazes inscrutably out of the depths
And we sail on, surrounded on all sides
By the abyss in flanes.
Translated by Athena