Born in Theodosia, a bustling port on the Black Sea, Ivan Aivazovskii displayed artistic ability from an early age and later studied under the landscape painter M. Vorob'ev at the Academy of Art in St. Petersburg. His attractive marine scenes became popular and very soon Aivazovskii began receiving important commissions. He quickly established a reputation for his masterful seascapes that combined a delicate tonal harmony with an almost imaginary quality. The success of his art as well as his appointment as the official artist of the Russian Navy gave Aivazovskii ample opportunities to travel abroad.
In 1892 Aivazovskii undertook his longest journey across the Atlantic to America. The artist sent twenty of his paintings to the upcoming World Exposition in Chicago, and was hoping to tour the United States making his appearance at the Exposition. The voyage across America lasted two months, and proved to be quite an exhausting undertaking for the aging artist, and he left for Russia without attending the Exposition. While in America, Aivazovskii completed number of paintings, including the present lot. Before leaving for Russia he organized several exhibitions in New York and Washington to exhibit pictures he had painted during his stay.
Moonlight is a wonderful example of the romantic seascapes for which Aivazovskii had become famous. In the depiction of the waves Aivazovskii achieves remarkable depth and transparency by using thin glazes and infinitely gradated color washes. In the painting the surface of the agitated water comes alive with foamy white splashes. The sea is awakened by a strong wind, and the threatening clouds covering the night sky are an ominous omen of an approaching storm. Two small figures stand on the cliff, frozen in awe before the majesty and might of nature unleashed. The image of man as small and helpless before the uncontrolled power of natural forces is a central theme in the work of Aivazovskii, whose oeuvre consists of a myriad of canvases depicting shipwrecks. Moonlight takes this theme to a new dimension, raising the human figure out of the turmoil and allowing him to witness the beauty and grandeur of natural forces without immediate peril.