One of the great narrators of the sea, over the course of his career Aivazovsky confronted his viewers with its mighty force in every conceivable incarnation. He was able to capture with equal mastery the sea sublimely lit at sunset with the setting sun casting an amber shine on its surface or enraged in a storm, ruthlessly capturing ships in its furious waves. The artist’s unique ability to rouse the waters with his brush ensured that his fame as one of the greatest maritime painters of his age reached far beyond the boarders of the Russian Empire. His admirers included three successive Russian Emperors as well as Ottoman sultans and members of the French bourgeoisie. Aivazovsky was one of a handful of Russian painters to enjoy widespread recognition during his lifetime and held an unprecedented number of solo exhibitions both in Russia and abroad.
A native of the port town of Feodosia, Aivazovsky grew up by the Black Sea. From an early age he bore witness to its vastness and ungovernable nature and was also privy to dozens of tales of shipwrecks and legends of seafaring. The sea became his teacher and a constant source of inspiration providing him with the subjects for thousands of his works in many of which he sought to juxtapose the overwhelming power of nature with the vulnerability of mankind. As an excellent student of the Imperial Academy of Arts in St Petersburg, Aivazovsky was granted permission to attend Baltic fleet manoeuvres in the Gulf of Finland during his studies in the capital. This sparked his fascination with battle ships and prompted Aivazovsky to study their construction thoroughly. On graduation, Aivazovsky’s talent in depicting the sea and his preoccupation with creating accurate representation of naval vessels lead to his appointment as head painter of the Russian Navy, which gave him numerous opportunities to take part in military exercises in the Crimean waters. Although Aivazovsky completed endless sketches en plein aire, all of his final canvasses were created in his studio. He amassed an extensive collection of model ships, which allowed him to depict vessels from every possible angle with fine precision.
In The shipwreck the artist’s showcases his unparalleled ability to render the evasive translucent quality of water with the sun reflecting on the crests of the waves. In what at first glance appears to be a peaceful sunrise, a second look reveals a battered ship, which likely spent the night combating a storm and is now inclining, exhausted, towards the shore while the waters calm down. Once again the artist tell us a story of a perilous voyage, human tragedy and the natural world; it is only on close inspection that the viewer notes with relief the fatigued survivors scaling the cliffs to safety.