26 November 2014
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, 148 by 216 cm.
Provenance: Collection of Plaza Art Galleries, New York.
Collection of Major Ivan Zhitkov, USA.
Thence by descent to Mrs Olga Ploschek, the widow of the above, USA.
Collection of Olson Art, New York.
Acquired from the above by the previous owner in 1977.
Thence by descent.
Russian Art, Sotheby’s New York, 26 April 2006, lot 7.
Private collection, UK.
Authenticity of the work has been confirmed by the expert V. Petrov.
Exhibited: The World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893.
Aivazovsky in America, Hovnanian Armenian School, New Milford, October 1988.
Literature: For the original painting of which the present lot is a part, see N. Sobko, Slovar’ russkikh khudozhnikov…, St Petersburg, Tipografiya M.M. Stasiulevicha, vol. 1, 1893, p. 334, No. 487, listed.
Exhibition catalogue, The World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, Russian department, Chicago, 1893, No. 19.
W. Walton, Art & Architecture, Philadelphia, G. Barrie, 1893, vol. 1, No. 3, p. 59 listed; p. 70, illustrated.
M. Sargsian, “Aivazovsky in America”, The Armenian Review, vol. 39, Winter 1986, p. 84, No. 4–156.
I. and A. Shahinian Papazian, Aivazovsky in America, New Milford, Hovnanian Armenian School, 1988, illustrated on the cover.
G. Caffiero, I. Samarine, Seas, Cities and Dreams. The Paintings of Ivan Aivazovsky, London, Laurence King, 2001, p. 315, No. 487.
Related literature: For an engraved version of the present lot, see E. Grigorova, Khristofor Kolumb, St Petersburg, Redaktsiya detskogo zhurnala “Rodnik”, 1883, illustrated; p. 49, mentioned in the text.
In 1879, Ivan Aivazovsky began a trip to Italy to gather materials connected with the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus. In Genoa, the great seafarer’s homeland, he made a study of the life of Columbus and the descriptions and portrayals of the ships of that period. His direct observation from nature and the careful sketching of the ships’ rigging, in which the artist was an expert, primarily performed the function 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 his native 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, he painted at least five works which portrayed various points in Columbus’s expedition and his discovery of America in 1492.
It is possible that the concept for this series, grandiose in scale, occurred to Aivazovsky at the time when the 400th 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’s Columbian Exposition – which closely coincided with this important anniversary, Aivazovsky was selected 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 present them to the Imperial Academy of Arts, where a final decision would be taken as to which of them would be included in the International Exhibition in Chicago 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 by 16.3 feet in height.”
In the Feodosia Museum of Art a handwritten list prepared by Aivazovsky of the works which were sent to St. Petersburg can be found. Number 2 on the list is a canvas 9 arshins (approximately 5 meters) wide and 7 arshins (approximately 3.6 meters) high, 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, the Santa Maria, Pinta and Niña, having left Palos on 3 August 1492 turned westwards from the Canary Islands, crossed the Atlantic Ocean to discover the Sargasso Sea and finally coming across one of the islands of the Bahamas on 12 October, which Columbus duly named San Salvador.
Predictably, this epic masterpiece 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 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 instance, the secretary of the Society for the Encouragement of the Arts, Nikolai Sobko, when drawing up a list of Aivazovskys works, entitled it in 1893 The Disembarkation of Christopher Columbus with His Fellow Travellers from Three 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 had been painted by Aivazovsky in 1880, based on the sketches he made in Genoa, Florence and Venice.
The subsequent fate of Aivazovsky’s principal work in his American series turned out to be a dramatic one: someone took the extreme step of cutting the master’s imposing work into two pieces. The first of these, which is being presented here at auction, is the foreground and most significant part of this great masterpiece. It portrays Columbus himself sailing towards the rocky shores of the island. Aivazovsky has conveyed masterfully the tension of the historic moment against the poetic background of the water and the wondrous hues 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 stands sttill at the prow of the boat. The features of the great seafarer take on the aspect of a classical figure, doubtlessly influenced by the portrait of Columbus attributed to Ridolfo Ghirlandaio, which Aivazovsky would have seen in Genoa.
The second section of he divided painting, which was sold at auction at Sotheby’s, New York under the historic title The Arrival of Columbus Flotilla, is the background part of the composition, depicting the three caravels of the great seafarer, the Niña, Pinta and Santa Maria lying at anchor, and from which the last of the boats headed for the coast is casting off from.
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 the ships wait 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.