12 June 2008
The Disembarkation of Christopher Columbus with Companions on Three Launches, on Friday 12th October 1492, At Sunrise, on an American Island Named San Salvador by Him on the Very Same Day signed and dated 1892.
Oil on canvas, 216 by 148 cm.
Provenance: Plaza Art Galleries.
Major Ivan Zhitkov, Litchfield, Connecticut.
Mrs. Olga Ploschek, Litchfield, Connecticut, widow of the above.
Olson Art, New York.
Private collection, Europe.
Exhibited: The World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893.
Aivazovsky in America, Hovnanian Armenian School, New Milford, October 1988.
Literature: N.P. Sobko, Dictionary of Russian Artists, St. Petersburg. 1983, vol. 1, p. 334, no. 487.
The World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, Russian department, Chicago, 1893, no. 19.
William Walton, Art & Architecture, Philadelphia, G. Barrie, 1893, vol. 1, no. 3, pp. 59 and 70 illustrated.
M.S. Sargisian, Ayvazovski in America, Armenian Review, Winter 1986, vol. 39, no. 4-156, p. 84.
Iris Papazian and Andrew Shahinian (eds.), Aivazovsky in America, New Milford: Hovanian Armenian School, 1988, illustrated on the cover.
Gianni Caffiero & Ivan Samarine, Seas, Cities and Dreams: The Paintings of Ivan Aivazovsky, London, 2000, p. 315, no. 487.
In 1879 Aivazovsky began a trip to Italy to gather materials connected with the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus. In Genoa, in the great seafarer’s homeland, he made a study of the life of Columbus and of the descriptions and portrayals of the ships of that period. direct observation from nature and careful sketching of the rigging of ships, in which the artist was an expert, primarily performed the function merely of a fillip for the master’s creative portrayals.
In the subsequent process of his work on the major series of canvases entitled The Discovery of America Aivazovsky gave himself over freely to improvisation. Upon his return to Feodosia the artist, who had been moved by the romance of this historical period, repeatedly returned to the subject of Columbus’s journey and over the course of several years painted at least five works which portrayed various points in the expedition of Christopher Columbus and his discovery of America in 1492.
It is possible that the concept of this series, grandiose in scale, occurred to Aivazovsky as the time of the four hundred year anniversary of the discovery of America was drawing close and large scale celebrations were being prepared in honour of the event. In any case, at the International Chicago Fair of 1893 – the World Columbian Exposition – which closely coincided with this important anniversary, Aivazovsky was to be the official representative of Russian artists.
In 1892 the artist had in fact been commissioned to select twenty works according to his own discretion and to present them to the Academy of Arts, where a final decision would be taken as to which of them would be included in the International Exhibition in Chicago in the following year. The correspondent of the New York Times, who had seen Aivazovsky’s works exhibited in the academy, wrote these words in the summer of 1892: “The renowned Russian maritime artist Aivazovsky has completed a number of paintings which he intends to show at the Chicago Exhibition. Two of them depict the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus. The third shows the young Columbus escaping close to the Portuguese coast, holding on to part of the mast of a burning ship. The fourth depicts American savages observing the arrival of the first European ships. The remaining items in the collection also primarily consist of canvases portraying subjects connected with America. The first two works are of considerable dimensions, 21 feet in length x 16.3 feet in height”.
In the Feodosia Museum of Art a handwritten list prepared by Aivazovsky of works which were sent to St. Petersburg can be found. Number 2 on the list is a canvas 9 arshins [an archaic Russian unit of measurement, approximately 28 inches] wide and 7 arshins high (about 5 x 6 metres) entitled Columbus, surrounded by his retinue, disembarks on the coast of the island of San Salvador. This is a depiction of a historic moment in Columbus’s first expedition (1492–1493), when the ships Santa Maria, Pinta and Nina, having left Palos on 3 August 1492 and turned westwards from the Canary Islands, crossing the Atlantic Ocean and discovering the Sargasso Sea, finally came upon one of the islands of the Bahamas on 12 October, which Columbus named of San Salvador.
Of course, this epic masterpiece of the maritime artist, which covered many square metres of canvas, was selected for the trip to America. At the exhibition it appeared under the title The Arrival of the Flotilla of Christopher Columbus and was given an extremely warm reception by the American viewers. Since that time the painting has not returned to Russia, although it is invariably mentioned as one of the outstanding examples of the artist’s work. For example, the secretary of the Society for the Fostering of the Arts, Nikolai Sobko, when drawing up a list of Aivazovsky’s works, entitled it in 1893 The disembarkation of Christopher Columbus with his fellow travellers from 3 barques on Friday 12 October 1492 at sunrise on the American island which he named that day San Salvador, and he stated that this work, which was over 7 arshins in width and approximately 5 arshins in height, had been painted by Aivazovsky in 1880 based on sketches which he had made in Genoa, Florence and Venice.
The subsequent fate of the principal work in Aivazovsky’s American series turned out to be a dramatic one. Someone took the extremely enterprising step of cutting the imposing work of the master into two. The first of these, which is being presented for auction on 12 June, is the foreground and the most significant part of this great masterpiece. It portrays Columbus himself sailing in boats towards the rocky shores of the island. Aivazovsky has masterfully conveyed the tension of this historic moment, against the poetic background of the water, the wondrous hue of the waves at dawn. After long months of travelling, the sailors led by Columbus finally reached what they believed to be the longed for shores of India. After raising a flag and erecting a Christian cross they prepared to set foot onto this unknown land. In trepidation Columbus himself stood erect at the prow of the boat. The features of the great seafarer take on the aspect of a Classical figure, doubtless influenced by the portrait of Columbus attributed to Ridolfo Ghirlandaio which Aivazovsky had seen in Genoa.
The second part, which was sold in April of this year in a New York auction by Sotheby’s under the historic title The Arrival of Columbus Flotilla is the background of the composition, which depicts the three caravels of the great seafarer, Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria, lying at anchor, from which the last of the boats heading for the coast is casting off.
The fact that what we have here is not simply a pair of paintings but, rather, the respective parts of a giant canvas which has been cut in two is evidenced by photographs of the exhibition in Chicago in which the work can be seen as a whole: in the foreground there is Columbus and his sailors and in the background wait the ships in the morning mist.
Notes on symbols:
* Indicates 5% Import Duty Charge applies.
Ω Indicates 20% Import Duty Charge applies.
§ Indicates Artist's Resale Right applies.
† Indicates Standard VAT scheme applies, and the rate of 20% VAT will be charged on both hammer price and premium.