27 May 2012
Gibraltar by Night, signed and dated 1844.
Oil on canvas, 58.5 by 87 cm.
Provenance: Collection of Charles E. Sorensen, Principal of the Ford Motor Company 1925–1944, Detroit.
Acquired from the above by a private American collector in the early 1950s.
Thence by descent to the previous owner.
Private collection, UK.
Authenticity of the work has been confirmed by the expert V. Petrov.
Exhibited: The Hague, 1844.
Literature: N. Sobko, Slovar’ russkikh khudozhnikov, 1895, p. 316, No. 110.
The work will be included in the forthcoming monograph Light, Water and Sky by G. Caffiero and I. Samarine, to be published in November 2012.
Ivan Aivazovsky’s painting Gibraltar by Night in a way sums up his tour of Europe which he undertook after his graduation from the Imperial Academy of Arts. It is thought to have been painted in 1844 in The Hague from the artist’s fresh impressions of a visit to Gibraltar, and was then exhibited in the same city.
By this time the young artist had managed to cover a good half of Europe in four years, and everywhere he went his journey was extraordinarily successful. Aivazovsky’s travels were accompanied by personal exhibitions in capital cities, the attention of the Pope and other highly important people, ubiquitous praise for his talent as a marine artist and the accolade of academician at three European Academies of Arts.
The artist met with no less honour on return to his homeland. His colleagues immediately submitted a petition to the Board of the Petersburg Academy eloquently listing the artist’s achievements abroad: “Having made his name in Italy and in Paris, he acquired a reputation as the prime artist in Holland and England, travelled around the Mediterranean as far as Malta, busied himself in Gibraltar, Cadiz and Granada, earned praise and awards as no other prizewinner ever had the fortune to gain for himself, I regard it as my duty to propose, out of respect for his aforementioned merits, that the rank of academician be conferred on him”. Nine days later, on 13th September 1844, the Board of the Academy of Arts unanimously awarded Aivazovsky the title of academician.
In fact, despite Aivazovsky’s rather tender age, in his work of the mid-1840s he comes across as a fully established master who has found his trademark theme and compositional metier in art, to which he remains true throughout his life. The ship foundering in the waves of a stormy sea, and the silhouette of a sailing vessel in the moonlight are depictions that have entered the treasury of motifs of Russia’s greatest marine artist. He created the majority of his compositions of this kind guided by the dictates of his heart. His visual memory, made many times more powerful by his lively creative imagination, allowed him, without precisely copying reality, to reproduce in his paintings a variety of emotional states in nature, by recalling a landscape motif committed to memory in its most general features, but charging it with imaginary effects of light and feeling, often disregarding whether this was true to life in the literal sense. Gibraltar by Night, however, evidently had a basis in reality. The artist, who visited London and the British crown possession of Gibraltar in 1843, had certainly heard a lot about the tragedy that took place that year in the Strait. In 1843 the British Navy’s new paddle steamer Lizard was lost off Gibraltar through collision with a French steamship. This was probably the event, agitatedly discussed in the British press, that inspired Aivazovsky to create his canvas.
Through the historic collision, the artist’s favourite theme of the shipwreck was enriched by conceptual overtones that led him to enhance the drama of what happened. The modern ship driven by a steam engine comes to grief, her sailors – desperate to be saved – stretching out their arms towards a sailing vessel in the background proceeding peacefully at the will of the waves. At the same time, Aivazovsky intentionally shifts the dramatic scene away from the centre to the right-hand side of the canvas to give the viewer the chance to appreciate the dazzling seascape with its solitary rock on the horizon and his famous, masterfully painted path of moonlight sparkling in a multitude of gradations and splashes of colour on the foaming waves.
The relationship in Aivazovsky’s paintings between main and secondary elements was prompted by artistic instinct. The main elements are the spectacular luminous effect, unique rhythmic structure and unity of light and air. Outward verisimilitude – perspective, the distribution of light, the working of compositional detail – are secondary. Aivazovsky was always faithful to this principle. The artist himself acknowledged: “I believe that my paintings are distinguished not only one from another, but also from the work of many others, by their luminous strength; and those pictures whose main strength is the light of the sun, moon etc., but also sea waves and surf, should be considered my best”.
This painting is a variation in romantic tones on the theme of the insignificance of human progress when confronted by the elements. The artist takes the opportunity to build his composition on the contrast of the illuminated night sky and sea with the dark silhouette of the sinking steamship, strangely lit by the glow of red sparks flying out of her funnel. Aivazovsky seems to have explored to the limit the spectacular but simultaneously tragic phenomenon of the shipwreck. His aim was to heighten the emotional tension in his compositions. As he later wrote: “I frequently painted shipwrecks, but they were seen only in the distance, by viewers who had to imagine in their heart the horrors unleashed within the ship as her fracturing wooden walls were destroyed by the waves...” The artist felt a special excitement in suggesting that the viewers should work out for themselves the ending to a situation that was invariably presented to them together with much eloquent, symbolic detail. In the case of Gibraltar by Night this is a buoy being tossed by the waves that precisely centres the composition and a sailing vessel that has appeared not far away, inspiring hope. This device, often used by the artist, when combined with virtuoso effects of colour and light could be relied on to impart an emotional charge to the scene.
Notes on symbols:
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Ω Indicates 20% Import Duty Charge applies.
§ Indicates Artist's Resale Right applies.
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