A broadly appealing characteristic of Ivan Aivazovsky is his exceptional ability to tell a story. By blending accurate renderings with a romantic imagination, Aivazovsky created paintings that were always admired for their dramatic effect as well as for their beauty.
The sea, in all of its incarnations, was the main stage on which Aivazovsky presented his stories. The sea was an integral part of Aivazovsky's life and work. He was endlessly captivated by its ever-changing nature and masterfully executed thousands of seascapes that became the defining theme of his artistic career. He was exposed to it from a young age growing up in the Crimean port city of Theodosia, and it continued to be immensely significant throughout his life, most of which he spent in voyages across vast expanses of water and visiting various ports, many of which became subjects of his works. Searching for Survivors illustrates the artist's deep understanding of nature, and the human experience within it. In one instant Aivazovsky captures both the storm and the calm. In spite of the warm glow cast by a distant sun, the sea remains agitated and menacingly dark. A crew of sailors has set out on the courageous task of searching for survivors of a shipwreck. The viewer has a sense of a tragic and very recent past, in which much destruction has occurred, possibly due to a storm, possibly due to a battle, or both. The present is full of suspense, as the weather is changing, but it is not clear whether it is improving or darkening again. In the midst of this the sailors, seemingly oblivious to the dangers that possibly await them, are steadfast in their mission, moving into the rough sea. This aptly reflects the artist's belief that 'A man never gives in, a man will win' (S. Khachatrian, Aivazovsky Well-Known and Unknown, 2000, p. 39). The element of hope is an important attribute of Aivazovsky's dramatic paintings. Light plays a crucial role in countering the most violent of storms. The distant light in this picture gives one the sense that the worst is over. This kind of optimism is similarly captured in The Rainbow, (State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow) where sailors are desperately escaping disaster.
The present work was most likely completed in Aivazovsky's studio in Theodosia, where he spent most of his time between 1870 and 1872. It appears, however, that he began working on it during the 1860s, one of the most active and prolific periods of his career. Between 1862 and 1867 he had painted more than 200 pictures. In 1865 he finally realized his ambition to build an art school in Theodosia. The major social, political and artistic changes that were taking place in Russia during the 1860s may have inspired Aivazovsky to work harder. Aivazovsky did not veer away from the subjects and the technique that made him famous. By producing more works in his traditional style during a time when artists were drastically changing their mode of thought, Aivazovsky further underlined his independence, which had characterised him from an early age. Aivazovsky did not create pictures with overt social messages similar to that of his reform-minded contemporaries, the Peredvizhniki. Nevertheless he was moved by certain political causes, and even became actively involved in them. An Armenian by descent, Aivazovsky was devoted throughout his life to promoting Armenian culture and the Armenian cause. He also sympathised with the Greeks during the Cretan Uprising of 1867, a sympathy that went back to the Greek War of Independence, which had made an indelible impression on him in his youth. Aivazovsky dedicated a number of pictures to such causes, highlighting the heroic struggle of an oppressed people, and even organised charitable exhibitions to raise awareness on their behalf.
Although not overtly political, works such as Searching for Survivors became symbolic of such struggles and causes. In his way, then, Aivazovsky was running a parallel line to his Russian contemporaries, and similarly laid the groundwork for the beginnings of modernism.