MacDougall's Russian Art Auctions 1 December 2011

1 December 2011

Artist Index / Full Catalogue

Classical Poets on a Moonlit Shore in Ancient Greece

27. AIVAZOVSKY, IVAN (1817-1900)

Classical Poets on a Moonlit Shore in Ancient Greece, signed and dated 1886, also further signed on the reverse.

Oil on canvas, 94 by 146 cm.
800,000-1,200,000 GBP

Provenance: Property of a distinguished Greek family, Istanbul, until the 1950s.
Anonymous Sale; The Russian Auction, Stockholms Auktionsverk, 4 October 2007, Lot 47.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
Private collection, UK.

Authenticity certificate from the expert V. Petrov.

The work will be included in the forthcoming second volume of G. Caffiero and I. Samarine’s monograph on the artist.

In his paintings Ivan Aivazovsky often turned to the subject of great poets, from the classical bards of the ancient world to more recent men of genius — Dante, Byron and Pushkin. Art historians are certain about many of the reasons that impelled the celebrated painter of seascapes towards portraying men of letters. For example, the artist was initially inspired to paint the great Russian poet when the two men met at the Imperial Academy of Arts, and subsequently after discussions with Pushkin’s friend Nikolai Raevsky and plans for an exhibition, marking the anniversary of the poet’s death. It was the mature master’s ideas on the meaning of life and art that found form in the work Dante Shows an Artist Some Unusual Clouds. The occasion of his painting, in 1898, the celebrated Byron Visiting the Mecharist Monastery on San Lazzaro Island in Venice was a flare-up of the Armenian question. However, Aivazovsky’s paintings devoted to the classical poets, works linked by motif and the time of their composition, represent a strange and intriguing, yet still little known, chapter in the artist’s biography.

This small group consists of three works: the picture now offered for auction, Classical Poets on a Moonlit Shore in Ancient Greece, Acropolis of Athens in Ancient Times (private collection) and Wedding of a Poet in Ancient Greece (Art Gallery of Armenia, Yerevan). Painted in 1886, all three works are similar in size and all evoke an idyllic atmosphere of Arcadian harmony. However, despite these similarities, it is now hard to establish with any certainty, whether the choice of subject in these works was in response to a commission or simply the fruit of the artist’s unconstrained imagination.

Either way, Classical Poets on a Moonlit Shore in Ancient Greece occupies a special place in his antiquity cycle. This heartfelt depiction of a peaceful nocturnal view of a Greek shore is distinguished from its daytime counterparts by a greater integrity. Here the portrayal is less detailed in the delineation of the terrain and its distinctive colouring. Unlike the other two works, in this picture Aivazovsky does not offer the viewer porticos of ancient temples to win them over. We can barely make out, through the gloom of night, the laurel wreaths and togas of the winners in the poetry contest. The poetic face of ancient Hellas is composed of different artistic ingredients.

The moon, which has risen over the sea, framed by clouds, watches over the peace and silence of the sleeping, mirror-like surface of the water. The artist has conveyed perfectly the mystery of night, its power to transform the visible world, the close mystical connection between the moon and the sea that reveals itself on this kind of night. The beauty of the moonlight is expressed not only in the colouring of the pale night sky, but also in that of the sea, across which runs the luminous moonglade. The sea and rocks, bathed in spectral moonlight, evoke a Romantic sense of the vastness of the earth’s expanse and the delights with which it is filled.

Aivazovsky laboured hard over his depiction of the moon, which he referred to as a “half-ruble moon”. His virtuosity at conveying the effects of moonlight playing on the clouds and the moonglade lying, trembling, on the water surface, became his greatest painting achievement and elicited admiring recognition from the public. Aivazovsky distributes the glitter of moonlight in vivid, bright, rhythmical brushstrokes and splashes, like golden sparks. They are ripples on the calm sea and, at the same time, visual highlights. Here water, light and air fuse into a single element. Light is contained in the demurely cool and elegant grey-blue colour palette. It seems to oscillate with the movement of the water, rolling when it gets to the shore, and the dynamic, curved brushstrokes convey the form of the waves.

Air and water — these are the two main elements of nature and for Aivazovsky, following the views of the natural philosophers of antiquity, they are the two basic elements of painting. The sky in his Classical Poets on a Moonlit Shore in Ancient Greece is as informative as is the sea. For the sky tells the viewer in detail about the time of day, the atmospheric conditions and dictates the mood. This aerial ocean, with its currents and its clouds, running into the moon that illuminates the water — this is the area where this artist’s mastery is seen at its most refined.

The picture is endowed with a special tonality and appeal to the emotions, thanks to the combination of landscape with a genre motif. Aivazovsky often had recourse to this strategy — much loved by his public — in order to ring changes in his seascapes. When portraying the protagonists in his picture sitting and standing on the rock by the water, the artist applied one of his most effective techniques for nocturnal scenes: he placed his figures against the light. This use of contre-jour gave the composition further dramatic expressiveness. The rock, the boats moving across the water, the water’s edge and the cliffs resemble dark wing flats on a theatre stage. And between these “flats”, in the foreground, we see the poets, deep in conversation, actors in a shadow play. In the distance, behind them, a multi-layered composition of sky and sea opens up, lit by the moon from its diaphanous heights and by subtly elaborated lighting effects.

Although Aivazovsky often compared his own creative process with that of poetry, saying that “the subject of a picture comes together in my mind as does a poet’s subject in his”, this canvas shows its real literary subject receding into the background, while the picture is perceived as a harmonious poem of colour and light.

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.