The Many Faces of Ivan Aivazovsky

A great marine painter who left a vast artistic legacy behind him, Ivan Aivazovsky was himself often portrayed by his contemporaries, while as a talented portraitist himself, the artist also created around 10 self-portraits over the course of his long artistic career. He was painted by a whole host of his fellow artists including friends from the Academy of Arts such as Vasily Sternberg and Mikhail Scotti; older contemporaries such as Academician Alexei Tyranov and the “patriarch” of the Moscow School of Painting, Vasily Tropinin;[1] the chief ideologue of the “Peredvizhnik” (Wanderers) movement, Ivan Kramskoi; and the “apologist” for salon painting, Konstantin Makovsky. Two marble busts of Aivazovsky survive, one by Alexander Belyaev, depicting the artist as a young man, the other by Leopold Bernhard Bernstamm, created in the painter’s old age. After Aivazovsky’s death, a bronze statue was erected in Feodosia, designed by the sculptor Ilya Ginzburg. Despite all this, Aivazovsky’s depiction in art has never been the subject of significant study. How did the great artist perceive himself, and how did he wish to be seen by future generations? How, indeed, was he viewed by his contemporaries? 

The Portrait with a Secret

Aivazovsky was first painted in Rome in 1841 by Alexei Tyranov.[2] Now part of the permanent collection of the Tretyakov Gallery, the work shows the painter in a seated pose, his face turned towards the viewer. We see a black-haired Armenian man with a characteristic nose, large expressive eyes and a dark beard. At that time, the 24-year-old artist had finished his studies at the Imperial Academy of Arts and was in Italy to perfect his painting.[3] The young man from St. Petersburg quickly gained a significant reputation. The painter is shown seated against a neutral background, his figure depicted from the waist up. The angle is not a simple one, yet Tyranov executes his task perfectly. Aivazovsky's hand is portrayed in minute detail - the hand of an artist, it is graceful and majestic, with slender, sensitive fingers. In its colour scheme, the painting is reminiscent of Karl Bryullov, with the elegant black-and-white of Aivazovsky's costume and the red of his cravat setting the tone.

We do not know at whose instigation this portrait was created. It is not unlikely that the idea came from Tyranov himself, since he frequently painted his fellow artists. A naturally talented painter from Bezhetsk in the Tver Province, subsequently a pupil of Alexei Venetsianov and Bryullov, in 1839 Tyranov was made an Academician. Thanks to the Cabinet of His Imperial Highness, he was able to continue working on his art in Italy. His address in Rome was “at the Spielman brothers”, Via della Croce. As his contemporaries noted, his lodgings could only be accessed by climbing 125 steps, a feat which obviously did not discourage the young Aivazovsky.

In the summer of 1842, the portrait was still in Tyranov's studio, where it caught the attention of Vasily Grigorovich, Conference Secretary of the St. Petersburg Imperial Academy of Arts. Whilst visiting Tyranov in Rome, Grigorovich especially noted the painter's biblical canvases, as well as the portraits of “Aivazovsky, Nikolai Botkin and the Countess Gagarina”, also “10 women's portraits and three portraits of our friends”.[4] In the autumn, the yearly exhibition opened at the Academy of Arts: in preparation for that event, Aivazovsky selected a number of his paintings to send to St. Petersburg. In his report to the Academy Board, he wrote: “Besides these, I am sending to be shown at the exhibition the portrait of myself by Tyranov.”[5]

Well-pleased with Tyranov's portrait of him, Aivazovsky, it seems, wished to use it in order that the public of St. Petersburg could form an opinion not only of his paintings, but of his person, too. In November 1842, Aivazovsky received an enthusiastic letter from the well-known art collector and philanthropist, Alexei Tomilov. “Wonderful, dear Ivan Konst[antinovich]! I have seen the paintings, together with the portrait of you, and the paintings of the Chernetsovs, and several others: Hurrah, Aivazovsky! Hurrah, dear Ivan Konstantinovich!”[6] Tomilov's account confirms that Tyranov's portrait of Ivan Aivazovsky was indeed shown in the autumn exhibition of 1842 at the St. Petersburg Imperial Academy of Arts.

Combining a sensitive approach with exemplary execution, Tyranov's portrait of Aivazovsky was purchased by Pavel Tretyakov in 1875. Later, the canvas became the best-known likeness of the great marine painter, reproduced in dictionaries, encyclopaedias and academic publications (as well as on stamps). Familiar to all, the image appeared not to possess any unusual details, although the artist did perhaps appear somewhat older than his years.

However, careful study of the canvas in 2002 showed that the portrait had been repeatedly altered.[7] X-rays revealed earlier versions with shaved cheeks and chin, and a different hairstyle: instead of the later thrown-back look, the artist's hair had been carefully smoothed down. To the right of his face, a playful curl revealed Aivazovsky's ear. Looking at the painting through a powerful microscope, researchers noted grey hairs in the painter's thick black beard: the earlier version had shown a younger, more modest-looking man. Other parts of the painting had also been changed: the right shoulder and arm were different, and the signature and inscription had been added at different times. Who could have altered the painting, and at what time?

A somewhat contradictory account is offered by Vera Ziloti, the daughter of Pavel Tretyakov: “I remember him telling us how he bought Aivazovsky's self-portrait with greying sideburns, [the artist dressed] in a coat with ribbons and decorations. Whilst recognizing Aivazovsky's talent, Pavel Mikhailovich did not like his ‘official's' mentality. With that sixth sense so typical of him, Pavel Mikhailovich felt that there was something suspicious about the painting. He began to wash away the layers of paint, gradually uncovering something brown, with some red in the centre. The grey hair gave way to black, and soon a young Aivazovsky was revealed, in a velvet jacket with red cravat. In the corner, the portrait bore the signature ‘Tyranov'. The following morning, our father called us to his study in between our lessons, in order to show us his discovery: ‘Aivazovsky will not thank me for this.' And indeed, he did not thank him. They did not see each other for a long time. Pavel Mikhailovich's efforts at restoration often brought extraordinary surprises, many of which I can no longer even recall.”[8]

Tretyakov is not known to have purchased a self-portrait by Aivazovsky. The story of his buying the canvas by Tyranov, however, is well-known. In December 1875, a solo exhibition of Aivazovsky's work opened at the Academy of Arts. Tyranov's portrait, it seems, was part of this extremely successful event. In anticipation of a visit from Pavel Tretyakov, on December 2 Aivazovsky wrote to the collector: “You will, it seems, be visiting St. Petersburg, so I will give you my portrait when you are here.”[9] The painter was referring to Tyranov's work. Around that time, Tretyakov had decided to create a “national” portrait gallery from part of his collection: the two considerations of which he was mindful in this task were the historical role of the figure portrayed, and the artistic merit of the work.[10]

Tretyakov was proud of the likeness of the famous marine painter in his collection. Writing to Ilya Repin on December 22 1884, he noted: “Tyranov is excellently represented with his portrait of Aivazovsky.”[11] It could be that, when selling the portrait to Tretyakov's gallery 34 years after its creation, Aivazovsky decided to “update” his appearance a little, to take account of his current age and status. He may have added the greying sideburns, coat and awards mentioned by Vera Ziloti - details which, according to her, Tretyakov then proceeded to “wash away”.

“Tomfoolery on Paper”

Alexandre Benois's description of the album “Drawings of the Russian Artists in Rome” (1843, Tretyakov Gallery) is characteristic of the critic, and the piece does indeed merit such an appraisal. Created as a joint effort by the architect Nicholas Benois and the artists Vasily Sternberg and Mikhail Scotti, the album was offered to Pavel Krivtsov, who was in charge of the Russian artists in Rome, on the occasion of his departure for St. Petersburg. The strip-cartoon documented the artists' life in Italy in the 1840s, including a number of key official events such as an audience with Pope Gregory XVI, and the Grand Duchess Maria Nikolayevna's visit to their impromptu exhibition.

The album is filled with everyday scenes of Italian life, drawings of the interiors of the artists' studios and cartoon portraits of the Russian painters themselves. Special comic effect was achieved by exaggerating or otherwise stressing the characteristic features of their fellow artists. Occasionally, unexpected comparisons and parallels were made, to be enjoyed by those familiar with the Italian environment. These were complemented by amateur poetry by the sculptor Nikolai Ramazanov and the architect Alexander Rezanov.

The page entitled “Visit to the Pope” by Mikhail Scotti shows a scene at the Vatican, with five “chosen artists” receiving the Pope's blessing. Who were these fortunate five? The painter Josef Haberzettl, one of the longest-standing members of the Russian artists' community in Rome; the portraitist Jan Ksawery Kaniewski from the “Kingdom of Poland”; the architect Alexander Kudinov; Ivan Chernik from the Black Sea Cossacks; and Ivan Aivazovsky. The marine painter is depicted standing by the Pope's throne and pointing at a canvas with a magnificent carved frame, resting on an easel. “Chaos. Creation of the World” had made Aivazovsky famous, virtually overnight. The Pope had been told of the existence of this unusual work, in which the Russian romantic artist addresses the weighty topic of the creation, and had evinced the desire to see it. The canvas was duly brought to the Vatican, and the Pope expressed great satisfaction, desiring to purchase it for his collection. Aivazovsky refused any payment, prompting the Pontiff to offer the artist a gold medal as a sign of special favour. Congratulating his friend on this momentous occasion, Nikolai Gogol came up with a nice wordplay: “You came to Rome from the shores of the Neva, little man, and immediately brought ‘Chaos' to the Vatican.”[12]

In Scotti's caricature, Aivazovsky's black beard and smooth, neatly parted hair recall the portrait by Tyranov. If in that painting, however, Tyranov had sought to laud the rising Russian star, Scotti's aim was to create a different, distinctly ironic impression. Aivazovsky's bent knee and obsequious expression show him to be a man with “ambitions, sick with desire for fame”. Aivazovsky's productivity and the exceptional speed with which he painted caused many of the artists in the Russian community in Rome to feel jealousy. In their “Notes”, the brothers Chernetsov, for instance, chided Aivazovsky for his haughtiness, self-promotion and pushiness. Following a meeting in Florence, however, they finally “made their peace,”[13] and Aivazovsky was even included in Grigory Chernetsov's group portrait “The Russian Artists at the Roman Forum” (1842, National Art Museum of Belarus). The artist is portrayed as a rather small figure with a bearded profile and dandyish top hat, barely visible in the background amid the classical columns of the ancient site.

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