By 1869 Ivan Aivazovsky had travelled extensively throughout the southern regions of the Russian and Ottoman Empires, along the coasts of the Aegean, the Mediterranean and of course the Black Sea, on the shores of which stood his beloved Crimean home city, Theodosia. The present work was executed during an exceptionally prolific period in the artist's career. According to one of his accounts, between 1862 and 1867 alone he painted more than two hundred pictures (G. Caffiero and I. Samarine, Seas, Cities and Dreams. The Paintings of Ivan Aivazovsky, London, 2000, p. 55). He was at the midpoint of his impressive career, having first attracted much attention some thirty years earlier at the autumn exhibition at the Imperial Academy of Arts in St Petersburg, when he was awarded a gold medal for his seascapes. Greatly admired by Emperor Nicholas I, the artist was given important commissions that significantly raised his standing at the start of his artistic career.
Aivazovsky's pictures caught the eyes of the likes of Alexander Pushkin and Eugene Delacroix. When J.M.W. Turner saw the artist's works, he wrote: '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.' (quoted in Karatygin, Russkaya Starina, 1878, vol. XXII, p. 431). Aivazovsky's unique artistic talents and his affable personality gave him easy access to the Russian Imperial court and provided him with exceptional freedom that allowed him to maintain a relatively independent lifestyle. In the mid-1840s he re-settled in Theodosia where he built a house on the seashore that would become the centre of much artistic activity. It served not only as a studio for the artist, but also eventually as an art school and gallery for the area. Aivazovsky, who felt a great affinity for the Crimean landscape and in particular the Black Sea, dedicated numerous paintings to the region.
He was recorded as saying that 'the sea is my life, if I were to live another 300 years, I would always find something new in the sea' (S. Khachatrian, op. cit, p. 30). The sea and its coastlines formed an inextricable part of Aivazovsky's life and work. From an early age, life in the port city of Theodosia exposed the artist to the ever-changing nature of the sea as well as the richly diverse population which inhabited, visited and traded along its shores. Lying on the southern tip of the Crimean peninsula, Theodosia (today known as Feodosiya) is a city with ancient Greek roots that has been resettled and renamed numerous times. Throughout its history under Byzantine, Mongol, Genoese, Ottoman and Russian rule, the city had been a meeting point for numerous cultural exchanges and influences. In the nineteenth century, Armenians, who for hundreds of years made up a significant proportion of the entire population of the Crimea, comprised approximately twenty percent of the population of Theodosia. The special tax privileges enjoyed by the Theodosian port and its thriving Armenian community caused the merchant Konstantin Aivazovsky, the artist's father, to settle there permanently in the early 19th century and raise a family. Ivan, who showed talent for drawing from an early age, was quickly noticed by Alexander Kaznacheev, the governor of Theodosia, who was influential in the young artist's continued development and success. Aivazovsky's ample experience 'en plein-air' as a youth, combined with his keen sense of observation and his exceptional memory allowed him to execute most of his paintings entirely in his studio, amazing viewers with his consistent abilityto portray his vistas with great accuracy and meticulous attention to detail, as well as romantic flair. The artist stressed that by executing his paintings from memory he displayed an intimate understanding of nature that would otherwise be unattainable; 'A painter who only copies nature becomes a slave to it, bound by hand and feet. A man without the gift of memory, gathering his impressions of living nature, can be an excellent copyist, a living photographic camera, but a genuine artist - never [...] I compose the subject of a painting in my memory, just as a poet does verse; having made a sketch on a piece of paper, I set to work, and do not leave the canvas, until I have expressed myself upon it with my brush' (G. Caffiero and I. Samarine, op. cit., p. 88). Aivazovsky's talent for instinctively grasping the different effects varying climactic zones, times of day and seasonal changes had on the sea and on land, enabled him to successfully portray every possible natural state in his oeuvre of an estimated 6,000 paintings. Equally known for his dramatic renditions of the sea in stormy weather, Aivazovsky also executed many works depicting calm seascapes, most often from the perspective of the seashore, with harmony prevailing between man and nature. Here Aivazovsky illustrates a serene moment in the midst of an all-encompassing golden sunset, languorously watched at the water's edge by several onlookers. This work exemplifies Aivazovsky's highly skillful way of rendering a realistic natural setting charged with mood. The painting was clearly executed with the intention to mesmerize the viewer. Large in scale, the entire canvas is set aglow by the incandescent light of the hanging sun, with gradations of pink, yellow, green and blue completing the composition. The viewer is at once engaged with an impressionist vision as well as an attractive panorama created with a refined use of perspective. The receding planes are delineated by the arrangement of light and cast shadows, the flock of birds flying towards the horizon, and the figures lining the shore. As the viewer is brought directly into the picture plane, the distance with the canvas is almost nullified. This effect epitomises Aivazovsky's genius.