Ukrainian harvest was painted during the 1850s at the peak of Aivazovsky's career. Hailed as the leading marine artist of his time, Aivazovsky had already achieved international success and critical acclaim and was a highly-regarded member of art academies in St Petersburg, Rome, Paris and Amsterdam. His most accomplished works, whether seascapes, landscapes, or those with a religious theme, reveal a world that unites the artist's creativity and power of imagination with the universal spirit of nature. Ukrainian harvest, a rare and exemplary Malorussian landscape, embodies both Aivazovsky's characteristic fidelity to nature and his technical mastery. Its appearance at auction provides a unique opportunity to acquire one of Aivazovsky's coveted masterpieces.
In 1848 Aivazovsky settled in Feodosia, his birthplace, a bustling port on the Black Sea. The artist's estate, Shah-Mamai, located on the Crimean peninsula was part of a parcel of land presented to him by Tsar Nicholas I, a great admirer of his talent. Considerable commercial success and a constant stream of lucrative commissions from the Russian Imperial and aristocratic families, allowed Aivazovsky a degree of independence which enabled him to confidently experiment with styles and painterly techniques and, to a certain extent, choose subjects of his choice. When the playwright, Anton Chekhov, visited Aivazovsky some years later in July 1888, he described the estate as '...magnificent...rather like a fairyland'; it was the unspoilt beauty of this region that inspired Aivazovsky to embark on a series of landscapes, most illuminated by the southern summer sun, in the late 1850s.
With its seemingly boundless territory and wheat fields stretching towards the horizon, Ukrainian harvest depicts Ukraine with as much mesmerizing power as that found in Aivazovsky's depictions of the sea. One of Aivazovsky's earlier works depicting the Ukraine, the present painting, with its low horizon and picturesque khutor, or farmstead, is closely related to some of Aivazovsky's best-known landscapes held in museum collections including; Windmills on Ukrainian steppe at dusk (fig. 1, 1862, State Russian Museum, St Petersburg), Chumaks' carts (fig. 2, 1862, Theodosia Art Gallery) and Harvest time, Ukraine (fig. 3, 1883, Theodosia Art Gallery). Using a similar horizon-line, Windmills on the Ukrainian steppe at dusk appears to depict the same farmstead as Ukrainian harvest, yet from a different viewpoint and at a different time of day. All of these works also share a meticulous attention to ethnographic detail; illustrated by Aivazovsky's depiction of the huts, costumes and ox-driven carts of the Chumaks, Ukrainian merchants, who transported salt and salted fish from the coasts of the Black and Azov seas.
Unlike later compositions, man is noticeably absent from Ukrainian harvest; only his traces remain: the pathway sliced through the field of wheat and the construction of the khutor. This lends the scene a certain stillness which is only broken by the flock of birds that hovers above the field. The sky, so dominant in Aivazovsky's Ukrainian compositions, provides a sense of scale for man and nature, while the windmills occupy centre-stage in the composition and, like coastal watchtowers, stand guard over the 'bread basket' of the Russian Empire. Aivazovsky himself considered his best works as those that emphasised the light of the sun and in Ukrainian harvest it is his warm, golden palette which in part gives the painting its dream-like, emotional tenor.
A Romantic at heart, Aivazovsky lived during a period of struggle between the Romantic movement and the gradual development of Academism. His use of delicate tonal harmonies and his ability to capture the ineffable quality of air with the lightest of brushstrokes meant that he had much in common with those artists who championed painting en plein air in the late-19th century. However, Aivazovsky's desire to capture the spiritual relationship between man and nature distinguishes his work from that of his successors. Landscapes such as Ukrainian harvest were conceived to incite wonder at nature's beauty and transport the viewer to a place of spiritual contemplation. Ukrainian harvest is testament to Aivazovsky's lifelong passion for nature and his own awe at its variety as he himself admitted: 'The scenery of nature is so varied and limitless that if I live 300 years more, I would still observe new wonders'.