Exceptionally rare, Aivazovsky's depiction of the Great Pyramid at Giza provides collectors with an unprecedented opportunity to acquire a masterpiece. By his own estimation, Ivan Aivazovsky painted over 6,000 paintings during his lifetime. In the frustratingly incomplete list of 693 works compiled in 1892 by Aivazovsky's biographer Nikolai Sobko, only seven paintings depicting Egypt are listed. In Nikolai Barsamov's 1962 list of the 550 paintings by Aivazovsky in the collections of Soviet Museums there is only one: The Pyramids (1885), now, as then, in the collection of the Yaroslav Museum of Art (fig. 1).
Immensely successful from an early age (Nicholas I became Aivazovsky's first patron while he was still a student at the St Petersburg Academy), Aivazovsky visited Egypt in 1869 as part of the Russian delegation invited to attend the highly anticipated opening of the Suez Canal. Franz Joseph of Austria and Empress Eugenie of France were amongst the European dignitaries present. Aivazovsky was accompanied by Admiral Litke, Head of the Russian Geographical Society and leader of the 1845 expedition to Constantinople and the Aegean Islands on which Aivazovsky had accompanied the Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolaevich at the request of Nicholas I. As they sailed down the canal, the French boat ahead of theirs went aground; forced to remain stationary for the next five hours, the Russians entertained themselves by throwing an impromptu party and singing Russian folk songs in the moonlight.
There are no records to indicate that Aivazovsky completed any canvasses on the subject of Egypt that year. Always a reluctant convert, after 1841, he abandoned the practice of painting en plein air altogether, preferring to make less detailed working sketches and returning to a subject at a later date. Aivazovsky, in line with most of Western Europe, proved susceptible to the modish fascination with Egypt sparked by Napoleon's invasion in 1798 and further spurred on by the discovery of the Rosetta Stone: he returned to the subject repeatedly over the course of many years. The earliest recorded Egyptian painting is Caravan before the Pyramids which was painted in 1871 (Private Collection, USA). Sobko lists four works from 1872: Night on the Nile, General View of Cairo, Outskirts of Cairo and Palm-tree grove and the Pyramids; two from 1882: A scene from Cairo life on the terrace of a house with a panorama of the city and Night on the Nile near Cairo; and one from 1883, The Nile near Cairo. The latest known work is the aforementioned 1885 The Pyramids in the collection of the Yaroslav Museum of Art.
Lauded by many as the greatest maritime artist of his time, Aivazovsky's genius lay above all else in his capacity for capturing light. In his celebrated seascapes his talent allowed him to breathe life into water; the desert provided a new medium for further experimentation. In the present lot, the apex of the Great Pyramid provides the compositional centre of the work, bathed in light, while the Nile glistens in the background. While the rich tones of the sun and the warmth of the sand recall his romantic inclinations, by 1878 Aivazovsky's works had become extraordinarily realistic. After becoming acquainted with Aivazovsky in Rome, Turner was so moved and impressed by his ability he composed the following lines:
Forgive me, Great Artist, if I am mistaken, having taken your picture for reality, but your painting has entranced me, and I am overcome with ecstasy. Your art is lofty and powerful, because you are inspired by genius.