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Ivan Aivazovsky (1817-1900)
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Ivan Aivazovsky (1817-1900)

View of the Saladin Citadel from the banks of the Nile

Ivan Aivazovsky (1817-1900)
View of the Saladin Citadel from the banks of the Nile
signed in Cyrillic and dated 'Aivazovsky/1871' (lower left)
oil on canvas
29¼ x 36½ in. (74.3 x 92.7 cm.)
Private collection, New York, Texas and Rome, acquired prior to 1992.
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Aleksandra Babenko
Aleksandra Babenko

Lot Essay

Ivan Aivazovsky, who had shown an extraordinary talent from an early age, enjoyed a long and very successful career; by his own estimation, he executed approximately 6,000 paintings in his lifetime. His career as a painter benefited from his special relationship with Emperor Nicholas I of Russia (1796-1855). Having in short order been appointed to the post of the official painter of the Imperial Russian Navy, Aivazovsky was often invited by the Emperor to accompany him on naval exercises, military campaigns, to political conferences, cultural ceremonies and other important occasions. The numerous events he had witnessed occasioned official commissions of paintings and inspired many other works.
In 1869 Aivazovsky accompanied Nicholas I to Egypt for the grand opening of the Suez Canal; possibly the most famous of projects overseen by Isma’il Pasha (1830-1895), the Ottoman viceroy of Egypt. Thousands of guests were invited to join in the grandiose inaugural ceremonies. In addition to the Russian emperor, imperial attendees included Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria (1830-1916) and Empress Eugenie of France (1826-1920), who upon her arrival in Port Said wrote to her husband, Emperor Napoleon III (1808-1873), ‘Magnificent reception. I haven't seen anything like it in my lifetime’ (quoted in Displaying the Orient; Architecture of Islam in 19th Century World’s Fairs, California, 1992, p. 146). Leading scholars, writers and artists of the day were also present. They included the French novelist Théophile Gautier (1811-1872), the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) and the French painter Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904). As many attendees recorded in their reminiscences, the general atmosphere was that of great harmony, where political and geographic differences were seemingly effaced in the excitement of the celebrations. As Gautier recalled, ‘the guests would group at tables according to their affiliations or professions; there was the corner of painters, the corner of scholars, the corner of literary people and reporters, the corner of worldly people and amateurs.... They visited one another.... The conversation and the cigar blended all the ranks and all the nations; one saw German doctors talking about aesthetics to French artists and serious mathematicians listening to the tales of the journalists with smiles’ (ibid. p. 146).
Isma'il Pasha lavishly entertained his guests, organising excursions such as boat trips along the Nile with stops at various ancient sites, including the Temples of Luxor and Saqqara.
During this expedition Aivazovsky visited a broad range of places in and near Cairo. These trips inspired him, resulting in a small yet exquisite group of paintings including the exceptional The Great Pyramid at Giza (sold Christie’s London 29 November 2010 for £361,250) that are the highlight of this period’s oeuvre.
With View of the Saladin Citadel from the banks of the Nile Aivazovsky offers a rare glimpse into the everyday life of Cairo. It is a serene, moonlit scene at the edge of the Nile. The shore is lined with docked feluccas, traditional sailboats which the Egyptians have used by since antiquity. People have congregated near the water’s edge, looking out to a rowboat heavy with passengers. The calm surface of the Nile is coloured with the warm ivory light of the moon and the red glow emanating from a latticed window.
Aivazovsky was renowned both for his unparallelled understanding and depiction of water in all of its states, and for his use of light. The unique light cast by a full moon was a favoured subject for the artist, which he incorporated in many paintings throughout his career, whether depicting Istanbul, Venice or Cairo.
This beautiful painting of the ancient Egyptian capital is one of the finest works from an extremely rare series by this great 19th century master.

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