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Ivan Aivazovsky (1817-1900)
PROPERTY FROM A PRIVATE COLLECTION, FINLAND
Ivan Aivazovsky (1817-1900)

An Ottoman coffee-house in the moonlight

Details
Ivan Aivazovsky (1817-1900)
An Ottoman coffee-house in the moonlight
signed and dated 'Aïvasovsky 1857.' (lower right)
oil on canvas
23 7/8 x 35 3/8 in. (60.5 x 90 cm.)
Provenance
Anonymous sale; Horhammer Vardeauktioner AB, Helsinki, 22 April 1989, lot 1.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
Literature
Probably, G. Caffiero and I. Samarine, Sea, cities and dreams, the paintings of I. Aivazovsky, London, 2000, listed p. 307 as 'Coffee-house on the Island of Rhodes'.

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Aleksandra Babenko
Aleksandra Babenko

Lot Essay

Aivazovsky's fascination with Ottoman culture was sparked by his first visit to Constantinople in 1845 with Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolaevich's (1827-1892) fleet, which was crossing the Aegean Sea that spring. Aivazovsky joined the expedition as the Russian Navy’s newly appointed official artist, a position created for him in recognition of his exceptional talent for capturing the sea in any state and his ability to present the construction of naval vessels with unparalleled accuracy. Aivazovsky had spent the previous four years travelling in Europe as a pensioner of St Petersburg's Imperial Academy, during which time he had honed his skills and adopted the practice of the Western masters he admired. On his return to Russia, the artist settled in Feodosia and opened his studio there.
Both Feodosia’s geographical position across the Black Sea from Istanbul and its southern climate suited the artist immensely. Between 1845 and 1890, Aivazovsky returned to Constantinople nearly ten times. Sultan Abdülmecid (1823-1861) was one of Aivazovsky's many imperial admirers. The sultan invited Aivazovsky to serve as his court painter and decorate the lavish Dolmabahçe Palace, the heart of the Ottoman Empire from 1856 to 1922. In acknowledgement of Aivazovsky’s contribution to the empire's cultural heritage, the artist was awarded the Order of the Medjidie in 1857, the same year that the present canvas was painted. Sultan Abdülaziz (1830-1876) subsequently decorated Aivazovsky with the Order of Osmanieh in 1874. Aivazovsky's interest in Ottoman culture is reflected in numerous canvases; the artist returned to the subject nearly every year of his long artistic career. Towards the end of his life however, deeply affected by the Hamidian massacres of 1894-1896, Aivazovsky disregarded the medals given to him by the Ottoman Sultans.
During his first tour to Constantinople, Aivazovsky also visited the Greek islands of Patmos and Rhodes. Rhodes had been under Ottoman rule since it was conquered by Suleiman the Magnificent (1494-1566) in December 1522 and remained so until 1912 when it was liberated by Italy and subsequently reunited with Greece in 1948. In the present painting, Aivazovsky tells the story of a typical evening on the island with local men gathered in a coffee-house on the shore. Engaged in conversation, people can be seen leisurely smoking tobacco pipes while another figure steps out with a tray of steaming coffee, inviting them to come inside. A young man is mending nets on the edge of the pier while a couple of friends are chatting intimately as the evening draws in. The warm light of the candlelit coffee-house is echoed by the moonlight gleaming on the crests of the waves as a group in a boat make their way home. Given the subject matter and the date, it is likely that the present work is the example listed in G. Caffiero and I. Samarine, Sea, cities and dreams, the paintings of I. Aivazovsky as 'Coffee-house on the Island of Rhodes'.
Coffee drinking and coffee-houses were an intrinsic element of social interaction in the Ottoman Empire. It is generally accepted that the discovery of coffee in Ethiopia or Kenya dates back to the 13th or 14th century and that it spread from Yemen to North Africa and Egypt, reaching Persia and Turkey by the late 15th century. Coffee was highly treasured in the Ottoman Empire and often referred as the 'Black pearl’. Coffee-houses sprung up in response to the drink’s rapidly growing popularity. Initially serving simply as a venue to sell coffee, coffee-houses quickly became gathering places for political debate, sharing the latest gossip and playing table games, although only men were admitted. Venetian traders enabled the spread of coffee from the Middle East to Italy and then to the rest of Europe, Indonesia and the Americas, with coffee-houses springing up in their wake, eventually reaching Europe in the 17th century. In Russia Peter the Great forcefully introduced his people to the drink and as such, by the 19th century, Aivazovsky would have been well-familiar with its pleasures.
This masterfully painted evening scene was likely painted during the artist's sojourn in Paris. It is known that Aivazovsky only sketched en plein air, completing his oils in the studio. While working in France between 1856-1857, Aivazovsky was awarded the order of the Légion d’honneur, thus becoming the first Russian and non-French artist to receive such a prestigious award from the French government.

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