At about 1833 Ivanov conceived a plan to paint a large picture The Appearance of Christ to the People (1837-1857). This picture truly became the work of his life, he worked on it for twenty years. Over 100 sketches, numerous detail drawings, and large-scale designs, most of them in oil, preceded the monumental composition. Its size is 540 x 750 cm.
His huge painting became, with time, synonymous with Ivanov's entire career.
Like many of his contemporaries Alexander Ivanov believed the Gospels to be a historical book. In letters to his relations the painter underlined that the subject of his painting The Appearance of Christ to the People was historical rather than religious. Alexander Ivanov shared dim hopes for a turn in Russia’s historical destiny and chose as the subject of his life work the moral renovation of mankind.
The artist sought such renovation not in God, nut in the law-bound regularity of historical destiny. Ivanov’s Christ is neither a God-man nor a miracle maker. Appearing unexpectedly on a distant hilly slope, he descends into the valley of the Jordan River where St John the Baptist is denouncing evil and injustice rampant in the world. The figure of Christ serves merely as the confirmation of the truth of the words of St John, who is prophesizing the triumph of goodness and justice.
The painter portrays in the crowd, aroused by the word of the prophet, people of different ages, temperaments and walks of life. To the left of St John there is a group of future apostles soon to follow Christ. To the right the Pharisees and scribes, fanatics dogmatically rejecting the truth. In the centre of the canvas Ivanov painted a careworn, exhausted slave, in whom St John the Baptist’s words awaken a glimmer of hope for his spiritual emancipation.
In the foreground of the picture there is a number of male figures, some already undressed, waiting to be baptized in the Jordan River by John the Baptist. While John the Baptist, in his garb of animal skin under a long mantle, a crosier in his left hand, turns and raises his arms dramatically towards the lone figure of Christ, who appears on a rocky rise in the middle ground, behind him a broad plain and distant mountains.
. . . People will eventually find the satisfaction of their spiritual desires and truth will thus be asserted on earth. . . This idea underlying 7'he Appearance of Christ was different from the ideas of romantic struggle, and sheds light on what the artist meant by calling his subject "universal."
The vast collection of preparatory sketches, belonging to the Tretyakov Gallery, at times reveal greater expressiveness and psychological depth, than Alexander Ivanov achieved on the canvas itself.
In his landscape studies he appears as an innovator who went far ahead of his contemporaries in the comprehension of the laws of air and light and in the skill of outdoor painting.
Ivanov did a multitude of preliminary sketches, studies and drawings for this painting. Thus, seeking the figure of St Andrew, he at first meticulously reproduced the features of an old man with a stiff beard and an open forehead, but seeing that was just a model and nothing else, he revealed the salient traits of St Andrew the Fisherman in the next study. However, this did not satisfy Ivanov either, and only later he arrived at the final image full of wisdom, warmth and understanding.
Among the surviving preparatory drawings and studies for the picture there are numerous female heads depicting dark-haired girls with large dark eyes, whose images the artist picked out from the crowd. In these female portraits, Ivanov followed in the footsteps of Orest Kiprcnsky, an artist who knew very well how to convey the spiritual beauty of his sitters.
The most striking image is embodied in the Head of a Woman with Earrings and a Necklace (1840). Looking at us is a broad flat face with prominent cheek-bones which can hardly be called beautiful. Traces of past experience left an imprint on the woman's face, in which Ivanov tried to show the emotional sufferings of the Messiah himself.
In his landscape studies, Ivanov turned to simple, unpretentious spots of nature. Once, on a gloomy day at Albano, near the graveyard of the capucines, he recorded and immortalized a modest, even ungainly motif (Soil near the Graveyardof the Capudnes at Albano. 1840). At another spot, on the slope of a hill, Ivanov'sgaze was arrested by several young olive-trees which loomed against the background of a distant valley. The picture is painted with minute attention to every detail of the foliage and soil. The bleak outlines of the moon imply approaching evening (Olive-Trees by the Albano Churchyard. New Moon. I 840). In all of Ivanov's studies, the viewer can precisely guess at the time of day.