Ivan Aivazovsky – “King of the Sea”

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When I think of seascape painters, Ivan Aivazovsky is one of the first to come to mind. He was a prolific Russian artist who created thousands of paintings depicting the sea in various forms. Let's take a closer look at his life and work. I'll cover:

"Aivazovsky himself is a hale and hearty old man of about seventy-five, looking like an insignificant Armenian and a bishop; he is full of a sense of his own importance, has soft hands and shakes your hand like a general. He's not very bright, but he is a complex personality, worthy of a further study. In him alone there are combined a general, a bishop, an artist, an Armenian, a naive old peasant, and an Othello." Anton Chekhov

Ivan Aivazovsky, Among the Waves, 1898
Ivan Aivazovsky, Among the Waves, 1898

Key Facts and Ideas

  • He was born in 1817 in the coastal city of Feodosia, where he spent much of his life painting.
  • In his teens, he studied at the Imperial Academy of Arts under Maxim Vorobiev for landscape painting and Alexander Sauerweid for battle painting. You can see the influence these two had on Aivazovsky's work, Vorobiev for his use of atmosphere and contrast and Sauerweid for his complex battle scenes.

Tip: Who you learn from will influence how you paint. Learn from many, but choose wisely.

Maxim Vorobiev, Sunrise Over the Neva, 1830
Maxim Vorobiev, Sunrise Over the Neva, 1830
Alexander Sauerweid, Siege of Varna, 1828
Alexander Sauerweid, Siege of Varna, 1828
  • As part of his battle painting studies, he took part in military exercises in the Baltic Sea to gain first-hand experience of the subject. 
  • He graduated two years early from the Academy in 1837 and was awarded a gold medal "for excellent achievements in the painting of marine views" (source). This put him in a prestigious group with the likes of Ivan Shishkin and Ilya Repin. Here's a list of all other awardees.
  • In 1850, the Emperor of Russia, Nicholas I, acquired Aivazovsky's The Ninth Wave. On a boat trip together, Nicholas I said:

"Aivazovsky! I’m the king of the earth, and you are the king of the sea!" (Source)

Ivan Aivazovsky, The Ninth Wave, 1850
Ivan Aivazovsky, The Ninth Wave, 1850
  • He painted almost entirely from memory and imagination, without sketches or studies. He must have had a remarkable memory! I don't know of many other artists who paint from memory like this.
  • Most of the 6000 or so paintings he created are seascapes, but he did paint a few landscapes and portraits. See below.
  • His art brought him notoriety and fortune, and he became a significant land and property owner in Crimea. His home in Feodosia on the shores of the Black Sea is now an art gallery. 
  • Anton Chekhov coined the phrase "worthy of Aivazovsky's brush" in his 1897 play Uncle Vanya. Below is an extract.

MARINA. And quite rightly. What a storm they have just raised! It was shameful!

TELEGIN. It was indeed. The scene was worthy of Aivazovsky's brush.

  • He met and inspired English painter Joseph Mallord William Turner. Turner even dedicated a poem to Aivazovsky. See below.

Like a curtain slowly drawn
It stops suddenly half open,
Or, like grief itself, filled with gentle hope,
It becomes lighter in the shore-less dark,
Thus the moon barely wanes
Winding her way above the storm-tossed sea.
Stand upon this hill and behold endlessly
This scene of a formidable sea,
And it will seem to thee a waking dream.
That secret mind flowing in thee
Which even the day cannot scatter,
The serenity of thinking and the beating of the heart
Will enchain thee in this vision;
This golden-silver moon
Standing lonely over the sea,
All curtain the grief of even the hopeless.
And it appears that through the tempest
Moves a light caressing wind,
While the sea swells up with a roar,
Sometimes, like a battlefield it looks to me
The tempestuous sea,
Where the moon itself is a brilliant golden crown
Of a great king.
But even that moon is always beneath thee
Oh Master most high,
Oh forgive thou me
If even this master was frightened for a moment
Oh, noble moment, by art betrayed...
And how may one not delight in thee,
Oh thou young boy, but forgive thou me,
If I shall bend my white head
Before thy art divine
Thy bliss-wrought genius.

Dedicated to Ivan Aivazovsky, 1842 (Source)

Ivan Aivazovsky, Stormy Sea at Night, 1849
Ivan Aivazovsky, Stormy Sea at Night, 1849

The Power of Going Deep

Aivazovsky spent a lifetime painting seascapes. With that comes a deep understanding of the subject that cannot be otherwise attained. It shows throw his work. You can feel the sea's mood, whether that be tranquil and serene or turbulent and almighty. Going deep allowed Aivazovsky to cement himself as the seascape painter in the minds of many. If he had broadened his interests outside of seascape painting, he might not have achieved such success.

But going deep comes at a cost. You don't get to experience all the other wonders out there. Aivazovsky was the master of the sea, but perhaps he would have been an even more skilled portrait painter. Who knows?

This raises an interesting point on whether you, as an aspiring artist, should focus on breadth or depth with your work. Should you paint landscapes and only landscapes, or should you try your hand at portraits and still lifes as well? Should you paint in oils and only oils, or should you also try acrylics and watercolors?

My take is that you should lean towards breadth in your early years. Then, as you gain experience, pick areas to really go deep on. Most of the joy of painting is below the surface, so it pays to go deep. But, you need to first work out what areas to go deep on. That's what your early years are for—experimentation and finding out what works for you, whether that be landscapes and oils, or portraits and watercolors.

Ivan Aivazovsky, Ships on the Waves at Sunset, 1850
Ivan Aivazovsky, Ships on the Waves at Sunset, 1850

Drama

Aivazovsky pushed the drama in many of his works. He reminds me of Albert Bierstadt in this sense, who did a similar thing with landscapes.

In The Wrath of the Seas, Aivazovsky contrasted dark and imposing shadows against brilliant highlights. This works both ways: the darks appear darker and the lights appear lighter. He took advantage of scale to make the boat appear tiny and futile compared to the vicious sea. And the cool colors play into the idea of icy water and winds. (I analyze this painting in greater detail in my Composition Breakdown course.)

Ivan Aivazovsky, The Wrath of the Seas, 1886
Ivan Aivazovsky, The Wrath of the Seas, 1886

He made similar use of contrast in Peter the Great in Red Hill, Lit a Bonfire on the Beach. But instead of pale blues, he pushed the warm colors. These colors play into the idea of light and fire rather than the icy sea.

Tip: You can use color to place emphasis on particular areas in your painting. For example, if you want to draw attention to the lush leaves and plants in a landscape, you could push the greens.

Ivan Aivazovsky, Peter the Great in Red Hill, Lit a Bonfire on the Beach, 1846
Ivan Aivazovsky, Peter the Great in Red Hill, Lit a Bonfire on the Beach, 1846

Rainbow is a lighter example of drama. The pale background focuses attention on boat battling the seas. The ship behind melts into the atmosphere and looks ethereal and ghostly.

Ivan Aivazovsky, Rainbow, 1873
Ivan Aivazovsky, Rainbow, 1873

Aivazovsky also pushed the drama in terms of the canvas size he painted on. The Ninth Wave is a staggering 11 by 7 feet (3.3 by 2.2 meters). It must be quite a sight in person. If you ever want to make a statement with a painting, go large.

Ivan Aivazovsky, The Ninth Wave, 1850
Ivan Aivazovsky, The Ninth Wave, 1850

Color Themes

Aivazovsky used strong and concise color themes that reiterate the subject. For warm sunsets, he pushed the yellows, oranges, and reds. For still mornings, he used soft pastels. For storms, he pushed the value contrast and muted the colors.

Below is one of Aivazovsky's more vibrant works. It's a battle between the sky's yellows and oranges and the sea's greens and blues. The reflections on the water help weave the two areas together. I particularly like how Aivazovsky used rich blues for accents in the water. It gives the painting a strange glow. It's not easy to use so much color and get away with it!

Ivan Aivazovsky, At the Crimean Coast, 1890s
Ivan Aivazovsky, At the Crimean Coast, 1890s

Petersburg Stock Exchange captures the sun just as it falls below (or rises above) the horizon line. Aivazovsky pushes the reds, oranges, and yellows and restrains the blues.

Ivan Aivazovsky, Petersburg Stock Exchange, 1847
Ivan Aivazovsky, Petersburg Stock Exchange, 1847

Aivazovsky does a great job of conveying the night sky in The View of Vesuvius on a Moonlit Night. The rough color transitions in the sky convey a moody and dark atmosphere. This is contrasted by the crisp reflections on the water. Also, notice how the colors taper off into darkness around the edges. This is known as vignette and it's an effective way to create drama, focus attention, and convey the night's darkness.

Ivan Aivazovsky, The View of Vesuvius on a Moonlit Night, 1858
Ivan Aivazovsky, The View of Vesuvius on a Moonlit Night, 1858

Aivazovsky took a more somber approach in Lunar Night on the Black Sea. The color palette is muted, almost monochrome. This helps reiterate the brilliant white moonlight. We cannot paint with light itself, but Aivazovsky comes close!

Ivan Aivazovsky, Lunar Night on the Black Sea, 1855
Ivan Aivazovsky, Lunar Night on the Black Sea, 1855

The painting below conveys those brief moments around sunset when all the pastel colors come out to play. Look at those wonderful greens in the sky and blues around the water, and how they melt into each other. Soft color transitions=calm appearance. The shore, people, and ship act as dark accents. They command attention and make the pastel colors appear light and glowing by comparison.

Ivan Aivazovsky, Sunset, 1866
Ivan Aivazovsky, Sunset, 1866

Movement

Aivazovsky had a masterful understanding of water and how it moves and interacts in the world. You can feel the ebbs and flows, swirls, waves, and ripples through his work.

In Storm, notice how the snaking whitewash follows the contours of the water and how it concentrates in the troughs and where the water is breaking at the crests. These are the strongest signals as to how the water is moving.

The painting is built around a dominant wave at the back. See how water breaks unevenly. This looks natural and fluid.

Tip: Avoid painting waves that break and fold over in perfect unison. This is a common issue I see in beginner paintings. Typically, a wave will break in one area and pull the surrounding water with it.

Ivan Aivazovsky, Storm, 1886
Ivan Aivazovsky, Storm, 1886

Surf is a great example of using different techniques to achieve different goals. In areas of activity and movement, Aivazovsky used harder edges, thicker texture, and stronger contrast. The other areas, like where the water is lapping against the shore, are quieter and conveyed with soft edges and flat color shapes.

The point here is that water does not move in a uniform fashion. Some areas are fast and turbulent; some areas are calm and glassy; some areas choppy. Use different techniques to convey these different natures.

Also, look at all the curves in this painting. I can see very few straight lines, other than the weak horizon line. Curves=life as I believe Steve Huston put it in his Figure Drawing for Artists book.

Ivan Aivazovsky, Surf, 1893
Ivan Aivazovsky, Surf, 1893

Key Takeaways

  • Most of the joy in painting is below the surface. It pays to go deep, as Aivazovsky did with seascapes.
  • Aivazovsky painted almost entirely from memory. But he seems to be an unusual case. Apart from concept artists, I don't know many people who can paint from memory like this.
  • He pushed the drama, often contrasting imposing shadows against brilliant highlights. He also made great use of scale to demonstrate nature's almighty power and our relative futility against it.
  • His color themes are strong and concise. He used color to reiterate the idea and nature of the painting.
  • Painting the same subject over and over again allows you to gain a deep understanding of its nature. Over time, painting it will become more instinctive and natural, like painting the sea would have felt for Aivazovsky.
Ivan Aivazovsky, The Capture of the Steamer “Russia” Turkish Military Vehicles “Messina” on the Black Sea, 1877
Ivan Aivazovsky, The Capture of the Steamer “Russia” Turkish Military Vehicles “Messina” on the Black Sea, 1877

Additional Resources

Thanks for Reading!

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. I appreciate it! Feel free to share with friends. If you want more painting tips, check out my Painting Academy course.

Happy painting!

Signature Draw Paint Academy

Dan Scott

Draw Paint Academy

56 comments on “Ivan Aivazovsky – “King of the Sea””

    • Those first paintings literally took my breath away. Than I calmed down and thoroughly enjoyed the whole collection, wondering why – in all my ninety one years – I’ve never heard of these incredible artists that you have introduced us to?
      Thank you for the generous sharing of your work and of so many fascinating artists.

      Reply
    • Had the pleasure of seeing Alcazovsky’s work in Crimea when I was working in Ukraine. It was before the annexation of Crimea and I was mesmerised. Unbelievable in his little house.

      Reply
  1. Thank you so much for your wonderful tips and for the fantastic paintings of Ivan Aivazovsky. I really enjoyed it very much.

    Reply
  2. Thank you. I find Aivazovsky’s awesome seascapes very moving and genius. Your article is wonderful and greatly appreciated!!

    Reply
  3. Once again an inspiring dive into the work of an artist with whom I was not familiar. Clearly my undergrad art history back in the day was sorely lacking. It was not until I started painting (poorly) that I’ve been able to appreciate the genius in works like these.

    Reply
  4. In his seas, Ivan Aivazovsky gives us a glimpse of God. No need for portraits from this great man: in his seas he has captured divinity. I feel as if his work is some kind of prayer.

    Reply
  5. Learning through study of different artist’s work is such a powerful learning tool in every aspects, the techniques and on the artists we don’t always know about.

    Thank you Dan for these very formative capsules.

    C.Dube

    Reply
  6. Your scholarship is presented in ways which instruct but also create awe. Realizing the glories of others’ gifts and perspectives could intimidate and make us feel pitiful as we make our weary strokes. But you are a true educator, one
    who leads us into aspiration and
    humility. Your generosity seems to come from your true essence. 🙏🏻

    Reply
  7. Thank you so much for sharing the inspiring works of this master. Your insight and commentary add so much in assisting your readers in appreciating the nuances of the work. Your efforts are greatly appreciated!

    Reply
  8. I’m very impressed and happy to see and read your article and see this divine paintings of very geneous and gifted painter as I. Aivazovsky. Thank You very much.!!!!!

    I’m reading Yours articles for long time and appreciate it very much. You are truly dedicated, and altruistic, and helping, and totally unselfish painter and teacher!!!!!! GOD Bless!!!!!!!

    Reply
  9. Love this. Thanks for sharing. I was compelled by how he used a trinity of focal points in almost every painting. It intrigued me to go back through your article and look at the three points of reference and how he led the eye with them.

    Reply
  10. Thank you so much for the article. I am truly bonding with the subject. I love the sea, swimming in it, sailing on it and painting it (especially where it meets the shore). I think that Ivan Aivazovsky painted the sea over and over again because this was his true passion, and agree with Colleen that “in his seas he has captured divinity”.

    Reply
  11. What an awesome artist this man was.Thank you for the work you do to share with us such beauty and ability to put life on a canvas.
    dee money

    Reply
  12. Thank you for sharing such wonderful information about the great Artist and his work.His work is awesome and inspiring!

    Reply
  13. Where do you find these obscure ( to me) artists. This one is absolutely amazing. I would never have known about him with out your emails. Thank you very much.

    Reply
  14. Although we have abandoned all things Russian because of Evil Putin .I still love Russian Art and the Itinerants who did wonderful paintings of Peasants War and Russia. I bought a Book on Aivazovsky in 1980 published in UK by Pan. At that time there was very little Russian Art for sale, until a lady in London stared to import some work price from £40.00
    now £4,000.00. I wish I had bought some.
    I love Aivazovsky’s painting of Russia’s most famous Poet Author ‘Pushkin. Named ‘Pushkin’s farewell to the Sea’ which is in the book

    Reply
  15. Thank you for taking the time to share your passion for good art by writing this in-depth review. I was not aware of this artist. This gives me one more avenue to explore for painting water.
    I appreciate receiving your art newsletter. Not only do you write concisely and well, but you pick such interesting, important artists. I am so happy I found you online.
    From Canada.

    Reply
  16. Thank you so much, Dan! You certainly have a gift doing these studies and commentaries that you share so generously with us! Of all the Russian seascape artists, I really love Ivan Ivazovsky’s work and dream of painting sea drama in his style with his colors. I so appreciate you and think there is no one who can share his love for art and other artists like you do! Thank you.
    ~Liz in Blue Hawaii

    Reply
  17. Thank you so much. Beautiful works and great advice. I wish I could paint like this or afford paintings like this.

    Reply
  18. Thankyou so much Dan for another fascinating study. My favourite art has to be seascapes and enjoyed looking at Aivazovsky’s stunning and yes divinely influenced paintings, what an inspiration!! Thankyou Dan for your generosity and teaching of these studies.

    Reply
  19. Dan, This was all so fabulous, I agree with all the comments.
    I am exhausted and exhilarated and inspired and made humble
    by these extraordinary paintings AND ~your great energy~ in
    bringing them to our attention, right here before our very eyes.
    Wow. Thank you, again, for your guidance.

    Reply
  20. Thanks for this lesson Dan. It broadened my knowledge of great painters. Was so impressed and love his work. It is inspirational.

    Reply
  21. Fantastic! Really enjoyed reading this. Thankyou for all that you take the time to share so freely. So appreciated 🎨🖌️

    Reply
  22. Thank you for your informative Aivazovsky lesson that has me speechless, in awe and truly feeling like my eyes have seen something for the once time…. literally I had never heard of Aivazovsky…but more, I have never seen paintings in museums or online orchestrated with this delivery of expertise and drama. They pull me in and swirl me!! Unforgettable indeed!!! Thank you!

    Reply
  23. Many thanks Dan for sharing Ivan Aivazovsky’s work. They are absolutely awe inspiring and amazing and remind me a bit of the Hudson River School. Your explanation of his works managed to capture the essence of what was going on in the painting. Loved it!!!

    Reply
  24. No doubt by far the best work I have ever read on art. I now know after many years what painting is all about. If only I can try to add some of that wonderful work into my own feeble efforts, I would feel blessed. Thank you Dan so much.

    Reply
  25. This artist was not known to me. Thank you so much for bringing his art to my attention. I enjoyed the paintings so much. I have been in many great museums but these paintings left me in awe at the power of the paintings and the skill of the artist. Thanks again.

    Reply
  26. Like all the comments I was wowed by Ivan Aivazovski paintings. They give a meaning to the sea that I’ve never experienced before. The colours he uses are vibrant. Thanks Dan once again.

    Reply
  27. Amazing is all I have to say. I continuously gasped when looking at the Aivazovski paintings. I enjoyed learning about this artist. Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge and insight. I know my life has more meaning having read this.

    Reply
  28. I found the paintings stunning. My heart dropped a few times seeing the ferocity of the sea and thinking of the bravery of the sailors.

    Reply
  29. I found this article particularly informative and inspiring. It has definitely helped me clarify my sense of direction in painting. Your advice to seek depth after breadth is wise and is very different from encouraging a ‘butterfly’ approach. Many thanks for analysing the work of this master painter so expertly. He fully deserves our admiration.

    Reply
  30. I can’t begin to tell you how very much I enjoyed these paintings and your interpretation of them. Such amazing talent! I was never schooled in Art Classics, and I really appreciate finding out about them.
    Thank you,
    Mary

    Reply
  31. I am new to the site. I make frequent visits. Everything beautiful and deep, even the comments. I am not a painter, but think I understand their beauty and language. Thank you for sharing them with me.

    Reply
  32. Thank you Dan. It is hard to believe that such wonderful paintings were produced from the artist’s memory. What a mind Aivazolski must have had, and what a genius he was. I passed his name to a friend who is into seascape oil painting and, when she saw the “The Ninth Wave” image she was thrilled. She has been looking for such inspiration for a while. As for me, I love the sea but could never paint its power. I’d better stick with landscapes and portraits.

    Reply

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