Throughout his decades-long career as the leading Russian Romantic artist, the painter Aivazovsky executed a colossal 6,000 marines, many of which depict a turbulent and often violent ocean and merciless, destructive natural elements. In this way, Aivazovsky’s works often seek to portray the sheer strength and power of Nature over Man, and by extension, humankind’s ultimate vulnerability and fragility – a symbolic and central concept to the artist’s pictorial philosophy. A genius able to paint from memory and largely unbothered about drawing from nature, Aivazovsky cemented his status in art history as an unparalleled master of marine art, with admirers ranging from three Russian emperors to the great British landscape artist J. M. W. Turner (1775-1851), while the legendary Russian author Anton Chekhov (1850-1904) coined the idiom ‘worthy of Aivazovsky’s brush’ to denote an element of outstanding beauty and refinement in acknowledgement of the artist’s extraordinary artistic skill.
Born and raised in Feodosia on the coast of the Black Sea, Aivazovsky’s cradle was the glorious Crimean coastline and the bustling port life that surrounded it, which remained his eternal and unchanging muse throughout his life. Moreover, he was nurtured and profoundly influenced by tales of shipwrecks and sea storms, all of which imbue his oeuvre with a sense of impeding tragedy, and would become a major recurring theme in his personal iconography.
In 1840, after graduating two years early with a gold medal from the Imperial Academy of Arts, Aivazovsky was sent abroad to Europe to study by the Imperial Academy of Arts, having been awarded a prestigious pensioner allowance. Italy was the first stop on the trip, in part as the Russian landscape painter Sylvester Shchedrin (1791-1830), whose work had left an indelible mark on Aivazovsky’s style, had himself been largely influenced by the Italian School. Aivazovsky made his first visit to the Gulf of Naples in 1841, and the artist quickly became enamoured with the Campanian coastline and islands. During his time there, he exhibited regularly and quickly drew praise from Italian nobility, causing a media sensation that was widely reported in St Petersburg. In later years he often jumped at the opportunity to revisit and the coastline and islands of the region soon became a recurring subject in his oeuvre.
In the present work, the artist returns to one of his favourite locations, the Gulf of Naples, with a sublime view of the island of Ischia. Aivazovsky employs a palette of dusky tones to encapsulate the softer, golden glow of fading sunlight, perfectly pairing it with a Romantic composition of the island and a departing ship in the distance. His expert workmanship deftly evokes the translucence and diaphanous fabric of the water as the gentle, warm light refracts through the depths of the sea. In contrast to a substantial number of Aivazovsky’s canvases, Sunset over Ischia does not suggest the potential for human oblivion at the hands of the elements - instead its subject exudes a sense of calm which compels us to bask in the glorious, magnificent moments of beauty offered by the natural world, hence underlining both its ability to destroy as well as to beguile and astonish.