Arts Curriculum

The Coming of Age of Russian Art: First Half of the 19th Century

The Coming of Age of Russian Art: First Half of the 19th Century

Ivan Aivazovsky (1817–1900). The Ninth Wave, 1850. Oil on canvas, 221 cm x 8 m 43.28 cm. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. © State Russian Museum

The beginning of the 19th century saw Russia take a leading role in the defeat of Napoleon, demonstrating her preeminence as a European power. Russian patriotism was boosted by the experience of Napoleon I’s ruinous march to Moscow and his army’s famous retreat, depicted by Leo Tolstoy in his epic novel War and Peace. For the next 40 years, Europeans regarded Russia as the continent’s most formidable power.

But victory brought complacency and discontent. Russian leaders failed to recognize the need for technological development and left the country poorly prepared for the next great struggle. Although Russia was developing industrially, it was falling behind other powers at an alarming rate and lagged in weapons development, education, and industry—all the things that constitute the strength of a state. On the eve of the Crimean War, when railways had already spread across Western Europe, Russia was just completing its first major line between Moscow and St. Petersburg.

The growth of education, so necessary for the building of economic and military strength, also brought two developments that threatened the imperial state: nationalism and the desire for political participation. Both of these found powerful expression in the Decembrist rebellion of 1825, organized by a group of young military officers in an effort to overthrown the tsar. The rebellion was quickly suppressed and prompted further reactionary measures, including a new secret police to compel complete obedience to the emperor, and strict censorship of all publications. Numerous writers were arrested; some were exiled, among them the novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and sentenced to hard labor.

This desire for political participation and its frustration through government repression drove a wedge between government and some members of educated society. The dissidents challenged a fundamental tenet of tsarist ideology: the notion that the ruler was a good father who cared for the people of Russia. The failure of the regime to enact reforms would eventually erupt and lead to its demise.

Although this was a period of harsh tyrannical rule and political stagnation, it also witnessed a great flowering of Russian culture. Russia’s artistic community continued to share much in common with contemporary European art. With the advent of Romanticism, Russian artists took renewed interest in the world around them and explored ways to express their individualism and to intensify the emotional expressiveness of their art. The aim was to make the viewer feel the whole range of emotions.

Russian artists reworked Western cultural forms to create an original national image. The conquest of new territories required that they be depicted on canvas, and the academy began to stress the importance of landscape painting. In previous eras Russia’s changing landscape had been recorded by foreigners, now talented Russian artists mastered the skills to paint their homeland with vision and authority.

About this work

Ivan Aivazovsky was born in 1817 in the ancient Crimean town of Theodosia on the shores of the Black Sea. As a boy he loved to draw and attracted the attention of the town governor, who helped him gain admission to the high school and in 1833, the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts. While at the academy, Aivazovsky absorbed the spirit of Romanticism, an outlook that he would maintain throughout his lifetime. The main theme of Aivazovsky’s work is the struggle against the elements and love of nature. Aivazovsky was not just a professional marine painter, he knew the sea and loved it. He developed a unique way of capturing its changing moods. Instead of copying directly from nature, he limited himself to pencil sketches. Coupled with his most important gift, an amazing visual memory, this enabled him to reproduce particular states of nature.

One of his best-known works, The Ninth Wave, captures the struggle to survive against the force of the sea. The title refers to a common seaman’s expression meaning a single wave larger than the others. In the image, the wave threatens to engulf the tiny people clinging to their makeshift vessel. Aivazovsky’s use of light creates a glistening yet foreboding seascape. The viewer is at once hopeful that the people will be saved yet aware of their dire straits. Despite the tragic nature of the image the artist clearly admires the beauty of the sea.

Throughout his long life Aivazovsky traveled much, spending time in Rome, Paris, and other European cities; working in the Caucasus; sailing to the shores of Asia; and spending time in Egypt. At the end of his life, in 1898, Aivazovsky even traveled to America. But no matter where he went he always returned to his native Black Sea shores.

Apart from his work as an artist, Aivazovsky was a tireless and versatile public figure: He took an eager interest in world events and sympathized deeply with small nations struggling for their independence. At the same time he worked selflessly for the good of his native town, Theodosia, and did much to assist young artists. To this day the principal sights of the town are his picture gallery and his grave.

Aivazovsky maintained his capacity for work, his energy, and lively creative intelligence until the end of his life. He painted more than 6,000 pictures and a multitude of skillfully executed drawings. Aivazovsky died on April 19, 1900, leaving an unfinished picture he had begun that same day.

Ivan Aivazovsky

Ivan Aivazovsky (1817–1900). The Ninth Wave, 1850. Oil on canvas, 221 cm x 8 m 43.28 cm. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. © State Russian Museum

  • Romanticism aimed to evoke strong emotions in the viewer. Subjects and experiences previously considered in bad taste became acceptable; violent and shocking scenes provided the opportunity for representing strong emotions. As you look at The Ninth Wave make a list of all the emotions you associate with this painting. Be specific about which elements of the painting seem to be evoking your reaction.
  • Imagine yourself among the people in the painting. What sounds and conversations would you hear? Have students work in groups to produce a soundtrack to accompany the image.
  • In true Romantic tradition, Aivazovsky provides a moment of intense drama, but does not tell us how this saga will be resolved. Will the people perish, or will they somehow be saved? Write an essay titled “The Day After the Ninth Wave” that tells the story of what happens next. Be sure that your narrative is grounded in information from the painting. Share your writing with your classmates. Did they reach a similar or different resolution to this story?
Ivan Aivazovsky (1817–1900). The Ninth Wave, 1850. Oil on canvas, 221 cm x 8 m 43.28 cm. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. © State Russian Museum

  • Aivazovsky’s The Ninth Wave is sometimes compared with Théodore Géricault’s painting The Raft of the Medusa (1819) because of their similarities in subject matter and approach. Géricault’s work was inspired by a newspaper account of the sinking of the ship Medusa off the coast of West Africa. After many days on a raft in the storm-tossed ocean, only a handful of survivors reached safety. Find a reproduction of The Raft of the Medusa either in a book or online, and compare it to The Ninth Wave, then answer the following questions:

    • In what ways are these works similar? How are they different?
    • Imagine yourself on each of these two rafts. How are the situations different? If you had to be included in one of these environments, which would you choose? Why?
    • How does each artist include elements of hope in their work?
    Visual Arts

  • Romanticism was not only a movement in the visual arts, but also included architecture, music, and literature of the 19th century, in Russia, Western Europe, and the United States. Research an artist associated with the Romantic period and explain how that artist’s work expresses the aspirations of Romanticism.
    Social Studies

  • After reviewing the attributes of Romanticism, create a work in a Romantic style. The work can be a piece of music, poem, story, or work of visual art and should include the hallmarks of Romanticism.
    Visual Arts

  • Because of water’s movement and reflections, rendering the effects of water and the sea is considered to be one of the most difficult subjects for a painter. Try drawing or painting a subject that includes water. If you are close to a body of water, try your hand at drawing or painting it. If this is not possible, try a puddle after a rainstorm, a swimming pool, or even a filled bathtub. When you are done consider what are the specific challenges of rendering water.
    Visual Arts