MacDougall's Russian Art Auctions 1-2 Dec 2010

1 December 2010

Artist Index / Full Catalogue

Venetian Lagoon by Night

* 330. AIVAZOVSKY, IVAN 1817-1900

Venetian Lagoon by Night signed and dated 1842

Oil on canvas, 68 by 100.5 cm.
800,000-1,200,000 GBP

Authenticity has been confirmed by the expert V. Petrov.
Authenticity has been confirmed by the expert N. Ignatova.

Early works by Aivazovsky of such mastery as Venetian Lagoon by Night rarely appear on the market. Painted even before his "pink period", it is impressive not only for the quality of its execution and for the young painter’s skill, but also for its commitment to the traditions of the Russian landscape school, which are far less apparent in other views of Venice by this artist.

Aivazovsky first visited Venice in the second half of 1840 during his study tour of Italy. He went there, motivated by the hope of discovering the secrets in the art of "Russia’s Italian", Sylvester Shchedrin, who was idolised by the cohort of students then graduating from the landscape-painting class of the Imperial Academy of Arts.

Shchedrin, who had died in Italy not long before, had already managed in the 1820s to break with the academic tradition of artificially composed and conventionally portrayed landscapes. The Naples and Sorrento views he painted on the spot, en plein air, were not only true to nature but also filled with a poetic sensibility, a striving for complex lighting and colour effects. Shchedrin’s findings, it transpired, were very close to Aivazovsky’s concerns, and the latter became dominated by the art of the famous master, aiming to emulate him in all respects.

Shchedrin’s main requirement was to work strictly from nature. Thus Aivazovsky painted in the Crimea for his first two years after graduating from the Academy and then started painting in Italy. Trying to master the creative method of his idol, he even worked from Shchedrin’s "spot" (see his picture The Coast at Amalfi). But being an artist of a different creative temperament and indeed a different time, Aivazovsky was not satisfied with the result. From his canvases, familiar places and painstakingly rendered details of landscape looked out, but they did not grab him, did not move him. Then Aivazovsky tried, in his studio and from memory, to produce a picture of the shimmering, ever-moving sea. And instead of mastering Shchedrin’s secrets he found his own style. The sea did now sparkle and shimmer, full of movement. The artist invented his own way of painting: it had to be from memory and alla prima, without studies, preparatory drawings or underpainting or with, at the most, some quick pencil sketches.

In his studio he allowed nothing to disturb him while concentrating on his vivid memory. Explaining the basis of this method, many years later the artist said that: "The movements of living elements cannot be captured by the brush: painting lightning, a gust of wind, the splashing of waves from nature is inconceivable. For this the artist absolutely has to remember them, with all their random variations as well as the effects of light and shade. His phenomenal memory and romantic imagination allowed him to do this with a unique brilliance".

It is worth noting that even his first Venetian pictures did not emulate the veduta but were landscapes: the lagoon, trees, a boat, motifs which were similar to those of the artist’s native Crimea. Having often heard the melodious Italian language before leaving his home in Feodosia, Aivazovsky remembered some odd words and phrases. These came in very useful in Italy, where the young Academy students quickly found a common language with the gondoliers and fishermen. Aivazovsky and his Academy friend Sternberg sometimes even went out to sea with the fishermen, to paint Venice and the nearby islands from the lagoon side. After a trip to London and Paris in the summer of 1842, Aivazovsky returned to Italy and spent a fairly protracted period in Venice, focusing totally on new paintings. At this time he was painting a great deal, and quickly. His pictures regularly showed in Italian exhibitions and brought the young artist an exceptional degree of success. One of his works was acquired by Pope Gregory XVI. His virtuosity at conveying the effects of moonlight, playing on the clouds and as impastoed moonglade on the water, elicited admiring recognition from the Italian public and won the heart of the renowned romantic ballerina Marie Taglioni. On 30 September 1842 she wrote to Aivazovsky: "My memories of Venice are all the more magical because it is there that I met you."

When summarising the results of his stay in Venice and planning to go on to Paris at the end of the year, on 8/26 October 1842 the artist said in his report (which students with travel bursaries had to give to the conference secretary of the Academy of Arts, Vasily Grigorovich) that: "… I am beginning to paint pictures which are really quite complex. I have already finished a large number." Among such canvases completed during his stay in Venice was, evidently, Venetian Lagoon by Night, executed in the spirit of European landscape-painting of the time and still bearing the obvious influence of Sylvester Shchedrin.

But the distinctive features of Aivazovsky’s rendering of moonlight offer proof that he has now evolved a personal style. This depiction of the islands in the Venetian lagoon at night gave the artist a chance to paint the celebrated moonglade on the water, much admired by his contemporaries, and to accentuate effectively the silhouettes of San Servolo and the other islands, glimmering against the background of a sky still red from the setting sun. As well as lighting effects, the artist was also moved by the particularities of Venetian private life. In the foreground of the picture a genre scene is being played out — a gondola has stopped by a small wooden chapel, standing on piles in the water. And while the reverent gaze of the passenger is fixed on the flame which burns before a statue or image of the Madonna in the chapel, the gondolier, arms akimbo, poses for the artist.

Inspired by a similar Italian view from the brush of Aivazovsky, the English landscape artist J.M.W. Turner dedicated a rapturous poem to him, written in Italian, in which he praises Aivazovsky’s skill in faithfully conveying these moonlight effects: "Forgive me, great artist, if I am mistaken, in taking that picture for real life, but your work has bewitched me, and joy overcomes me. Your art is great and powerful, for you are imbued with genius". Many of the canvases painted during the study trip are in Europe, but a whole series of Venetian works, painted on the artist’s return, were chosen by Emperor Nicholas I to adorn his Cottage Palace in Alexandria Park at Peterhof and his Farm Palace, some paintings being for the dining room, newly built by architect Andrei Stakenschneider.

Ever since Aivazovsky’s first trip to Venice, La Serenissima became the artist’s constant and invariably romanticised "model". Aivazovsky also returned to the motif of prayer at the chapel in the water against the background of San Servolo. Thus, in 1845 he painted the picture Sea View with a Chapel on the Shore, which is now in the Odessa Museum of Art. Similar in composition to the Venetian Lagoon by Night, it does, certainly, portray the scene with more striking use of perspective, for the artist turns the chapel so that behind it is revealed a frontal view of the island (as in the picture Gondolier at Sea by Night, 1843). Yet still it lacks the charm of the artist’s first impression.

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.