THE ARTIST AND HIS BENEFACTOR: Ivan Aivazovsky and Alexei Tomilov
“Among other nonsense (as well as certain justified criticisms), I hear that Gaivazovsky paints too quickly and sloppily. His works are more like stage sets than paintings, they say. I no longer have the energy to refute these accusations; I can only remark sorrowfully that ‘at least the stage sets are delightful, you must concur.’” In such terms, without hiding his sincere chagrin, the well-known patron of the arts Alexei Tomilov wrote in 1842 to the marine painter Ivan Aivazovsky, who was, by then, acquiring a reputation in Europe.
Tomilov’s words referred to those aspects of Aivazovsky's art that were shortly to see him labelled as a salon painter; in the years that followed, this view became increasingly accepted. Tomilov, however, found this verdict upsetting: well-versed in aesthetic theory and in questions concerning the technical expression of form, the critic saw special meaning in Aivazovsky's works. The correspondence between the two men during the artist's time at the Imperial Academy of Arts and on his subsequent journey to Europe, when his painterly style was being formed, clearly shows the lively interest that the art connoisseur took in the work of the young artist. As well as showing Aivazovsky's relentless passion for studying nature and seeking his own original language, these fascinating letters also reveal new facets of the artist's personality. To some degree, Tomilov's universal ideas on form, colour and composition all became embedded in the marine painter's creative methods, in many ways determining the direction of his development.
In the first half of the 19th century, Alexei Tomilov was primarily known for his art collection, one which featured the work of both well-known Western European masters and prominent Russian painters. Specialists consider Tomilov to be the first collector of graphic art by his contemporaries, among whom were artists such as Orest Kiprensky, Alexander Orlovsky, Vladimir Borovikovsky and Alexei Venetsianov.
Tomilov's Uspenskoye estate in Staraya Ladoga was a comfortable refuge for artists seeking inspiration, its creative atmosphere and lively debates invariably providing guidance and food for thought for Tomilov's many guests. Spending his summer months in Uspenskoye as a student, Aivazovsky created several graphic works there, including his “View of Staraya Ladoga” (1835, Russian Museum) and “Peasant Yard” (mid-1830s, Tretyakov Gallery). The young artist also presented Tomilov with his drawing on biblical themes, “The Betrayal of Judas” (1834, Russian Museum), created in one of his classes at the Academy: the gift inscription can be seen on the reverse of the work.
The company of the artists who visited Uspenskoye, together with Tomilov's unique collection of prints, probably did much to develop the budding painter's artistic taste and to draw him into the classical tradition. One of the key features of Aivazovsky's method was, indeed, borrowed from a famous guest of Tomilov's - the artist Alexander Orlovsky. A remarkably fast painter, Orlovsky managed to produce works of art whose quality appeared in direct proportion to the speed of their creation: his “swift pencil” was even praised by the poet Alexander Pushkin. The biography of Aivazovsky by Fyodor Bulgakov recalls a related detail: “As Tomilov told Aivazovsky, when Orlovsky attended his crowded gatherings of art-lovers (of both sexes), surrendering to their requests, he would sketch for them his well-known horse riders and genre scenes, quite calmly charging the moneyed customers 10 or 15 rubles for each drawing. Hinting at the rapidity of his sketching, Orlovsky used to call it ‘baking pies'.”
As Aivazovsky noted, Orlovsky's “pies” were most popular with high society in Russia's capital: by the end of the 1820s, indeed, drawings by Orlovsky were an obligatory attribute of any self-respecting St. Petersburg salon. In later years, Aivazovsky himself came to be seen as a “baker of pies”: it was common for him to paint numerous small seascapes as gifts for friends and admirers of his work. As one contemporary recalled, Aivazovsky in Florence, in 1872, “would always come equipped with watercolour paper, paints and brushes. During conversations, he would be busy painting seascapes in sepia. He churned them out, usually three at a time: while he was working on one, another two would be drying.”
In 1835, whilst still a pupil of Maxim Vorobyov, the still-unknown Ivan Gaivazovsky requested Tomilov to send his drawings to the French artist Philippe Tanneur. At that time, Tanneur was busy working on views of sea ports for an Imperial commission. Who would have guessed that merely a year later, at the autumn exhibition of the Imperial Academy of Arts, Aivazovsky's work would prove more popular than that of his new French teacher? Of Tanneur's paintings, Nestor Kukolnik wrote: “We cannot but admit that the air and the earth did not please us at all; the air resembled smoke... The earth did not look natural: rather, it resembled pumice, which was difficult to accept.” Turning next to Aivazovsky's works, Kukolnik appears to express a far more favourable impression, noting the young artist's “lively echoing of nature” in his portrayal of skies and water. In a short space of time, Aivazovsky had been able to surpass his teacher, the critic suggested: “The diversity of his talent is obvious from the very speed with which he was able to adopt Tanneur's style, and it could well be that the French artist will pay a high price for teaching this excellent, yet somewhat monotonous style to his pupil.”
Just as Alexander Kaznacheyev, the mayor of Feodosia who later became governor of Tavrida Province, had played a key role in supporting Aivazovsky's talent, so too did Tomilov, helping the young artist to make new connections in the literary and artistic world of St. Petersburg. In a letter from Paris in 1842, Aivazovsky wrote: “I am happy that nature gave me the strength to thank, and to prove myself before, well-wishers such as you. I recall, when I first came to St. Petersburg, what close concern you showed for my wellbeing. Back then, of course, I was not yet known to anyone; and this is precisely why this is so touching for me. By now, thank God, I am completely satisfied in every regard, and everyone desires to know me, but I am referring to a different situation. I need not continue with this philosophizing; you have already understood what I am trying to say, I am quite certain.”
In reading Aivazovsky's elegant letter, filled as it is with sincere gratitude, one might fail to take note of a key detail: the meaning with which Aivazovsky invests the words “close concern”. The writer is hinting that Tomilov plays a unique role in his life. The surviving correspondence between Aivazovsky and Tomilov proves that the social protection which the art connoisseur offered to the young artist was not the main premise on which their relationship was based.
Tomilov's role in the creative development of the young marine painter was no less important a factor. In his previous letter, written in Venice earlier in the same year, Aivazovsky stressed: “To you, I did not wish to write briefly of the weather, although most of the letters that I am forced to pen, are indeed of this nature. I desired to write to you of things fine and artistic, since your ideas and feelings concerning art demand this, giving rise in me to this desire.”
Sensitive to the aesthetic aspect of art, Tomilov was interested in the creation of new art forms. The free, enlightened nature of his views is also evident in the fact that he was, in the 1810s, a member of one of the better-known Masonic lodges, “United Friends”. Other famous members of the lodge included the poet Alexander Griboyedov; Pushkin's friend, the philosopher Pyotr Chaadayev; and one of the future leaders of the Decembrists, Pavel Pestel.
Writing about the artistic atmosphere that Tomilov nurtured at his Staraya Ladoga estate, the art historian Tatyana Alexeyeva, who edited the critic's manuscript “Thoughts on Painting”, justly remarks that he “was one of those people whose inner world speaks volumes of the spiritual standards of an era.” It is worth noting that, although it mainly contains his views on the creative process, the art historian Valery Turchin has called Tomilov's “Thoughts on Painting” manuscript pro-Masonic. Well-versed in 18th and 19th century philosophic aesthetics, Tomilov had an important influence on the artists who visited him at his home and on his estate. Having supported many of the finest Russian artists of the first half of the 19th century, Tomilov proceeded to extend his attention to the new generation, to which the young Aivazovsky belonged.
In 1839, in the home of the Conference Secretary of the Imperial Academy of Arts Vasily Grigorovich, Tomilov saw five paintings by the marine painter. Writing to Aivazovsky, the art critic gave a detailed analysis of each work, pointing out its shortcomings. His standpoint, Tomilov stressed, was that of the exacting mentor: “I felt, as I am certain you will agree, that any indifferent viewer can praise, whereas he who has hopes that a painter will reach the greatest heights, and who passionately desires to see this happen, will take note of shortcomings, and be at pains to point them out.”
Having studied Aivazovsky's paintings at length, Tomilov points out that the artist had not spent enough time in preparation. Aivazovsky was clearly favouring time in his studio over creating studies from nature, the critic stressed: “It is not so much about what to paint, for the good artist, but how to paint. Without becoming accustomed to painting the parts, it is impossible successfully to paint the whole, which is composed of those very parts, albeit in a different order.”
Tomilov's words are a clear reproach to Aivazovsky who, his mentor felt, had not yet gained the necessary experience or skills for constructing artistic form. Later, the artist would create contour drawings of landscapes and even highlight differences in tone with special lines. In general, however, both the information we possess, and the very works of Aivazovsky themselves, show that he was indeed a very fast painter, who began and finished his works within the confines of his studio: “The subject of a painting will rise out of my memory, not unlike the subject of a poem for a poet. After making some sketches on scraps of paper, I get to work, and I don't leave my canvas until I have expressed myself on it by means of my brush.”
Tomilov's words - “make more sketches: bushes, trees, cliffs, waves, ships etc.” - should not be interpreted as a call to work exclusively from nature, or, indeed, to attempt to copy nature in every detail; the critic was certainly not referring to realist methods. It was, it seems, important for him to convey to the young painter his idea around the creation of integral artistic images brought into being through the imagination, yet rendered in accordance with the dictates of classical composition.
This idea, which clearly harks back to the aesthetics of early Romanticism, is expressed in “Thoughts on Painting”: “An artist should avoid crossing the boundaries of possibility dictated by reason, whilst at the same time striving equally hard to keep himself free of the yoke which subjugates us to ordinary thought, limiting us and quenching our imagination.” This delicate balance between the rush of creative talent, on the one hand, and rational composition, on the other, was, for Tomilov, the ideal embodiment of a work of art. Thus, aside from his thoughts on studies from nature, Tomilov also deliberately dwells on the sensual: “A painting should mirror nature, or perhaps I should say, it should bring together the sensations that nature evoked in the artist. Why should an artist attempt to portray sensations through incomprehensible images that do not agree with the habits of our senses? Each occasion when nature surprises the artist acts not so much on his senses, as on his reason, and the considerations of reason are rendered through prose, which one scarcely wishes to admit to the realm of the aesthetic!”
In time, these words were to become the epitome of high standards for Aivazovsky, as he continued to explore the nature of the art of painting. Once again, this shows the significant impact that the ideas of Tomilov had on him: “It saddens me to see an artist attempting to express ideal beauty through prosaic form, turning a subject filled with poetry into a common thing of the everyday.”
Tomilov's views on the importance of colour in works of art were also, very probably, known to Ivan Aivazovsky. Colour has a particular part to play in the creation of a painting, Tomilov felt, its role being to produce emotional impact. As Alexeyeva has noted, in “Thoughts on Painting” the art critic describes two approaches to colour. With the first, colour is mixed on the palette to match the natural surroundings of the artist, who “clearly perceives colour in nature and is able to convey it vividly and freshly for the eyes and senses of others.”
The other approach involves a deliberate decision by the artist to create the necessary effect without preliminary mixing on the palette. This can be achieved through “the fusion of colours which often may not correspond to those in nature, yet, having been properly combined on the canvas, produce on the eye an effect similar to the play of colour in nature that the artist wished to convey.”
This division from the author of “Thoughts on Painting” is founded on the same sensual basis that should, Tomilov felt, be present in any true work of art. For this reason, Tomilov himself gave preference to the second approach, which could be likened to the methods used by Rembrandt or Rubens. It is clear that, with their bright, highly contrasting hues, many of Aivazovsky's works can be seen as expressions of the ideas of Romanticism, which supposes an absolute “feeling in” on the part of the artist, and of the viewer.
Aivazovsky uses the second approach only for those works that require a striking touch which does not correspond to natural hues. The very subjects of his “disaster” paintings such as “The Ninth Wave” (1850, Russian Museum) or “Storm over Yevpatoria” (1861, Tsarskoye Selo Museum-Reserve) seem to demand heightened, vivid colour, which Aivazovsky creates with the aid of prevailing warm red and yellow tones. This approach was also seen as appropriate for works portraying times of the day and, thus, conveying a certain theosophical mood of pondering the secrets of the Universe.
It was no coincidence that Tomilov paid special attention to Aivazovsky's nocturnes, dwelling in particular on the artist's portrayal of colour and light. In a letter to the painter written in 1839, he suggested that: “The sunny haystack of the moon with its reflection on the water effectively recalls to the eye the warmth of sunrise. At first, this warmth flows through one's soul, yet the apparently strong rays of this life-giving source bring no life to the other objects in the painting, there are no reflections! In my heart, the warmth of the morning is alive, yet the painting depicts a quiet, cold night. My senses are at odds with the painting, I cannot be at ease in it.”
By 1842, however, Tomilov was writing of Aivazovsky's painting very differently. Scarcely able to conceal his joy, he points out shifts in composition and in the use of colour: “Hurrah, Gaivazovsky! Hurrah, dear Ivan Konstantinovich! Here are two exquisite paintings. Through a light mist, the evening sun shines upon a limpid sea. In the distance, we see islands; in the foreground, a ship with people... My eager eye speeds over the open space of the painting, comprehending everything it sees. It questions only itself, and I experience the answer in my senses with pleasure. The sun is a miracle in the sky. It is a miracle in the painting also! Hurrah!”
It seems Aivazovsky had heeded his patron's advice. Tomilov's pleasure was evident in his letter, and the critic, it appears, was always honest in his appraisal: “So far from the earlier ones were they [the paintings], that I would have assumed they were created several years later...”
To Ivan Aivazovsky, the student of the Imperial Academy of Arts still discovering his creative talent, Alexei Tomilov was more than a benefactor. The art critic was able to offer the young painter the same sensitive guidance and support that he had provided to many famous masters of the first half of the 19th century. It is evident that the ideas contained in his “Thoughts on Painting”, repeatedly voiced to Aivazovsky during the two men's many encounters, were also expounded in his letters to the artist that survive today. Whilst it is hard precisely to evaluate the influence of these ideas on the great marine painter's creative development, to deny their importance for Aivazovsky would certainly be a mistake.
This influence is clearly evident not only in the ideas of Aivazovsky, so similar in many respects to those of Tomilov, but also in the main mystery associated with the “last Romantic” of Russian landscape painting. Despite their striking nature, Aivazovsky's canvases are systematic and methodical in a way reminiscent of pre-romantic tradition. Based on the ideas of 18th century philosophers and theoreticians, the aesthetic theory put forward by Tomilov in his “Thoughts on Painting” naturally encouraged the young Aivazovsky to seek to return to the “roots” with a pre-romantic approach to creating works of art. As Nikolai Masalin writes: “He does not enquire, what is the sublime? He does not question its nature. He does not seek to find its roots: the viewer has no need for this. Aivazovsky informs his viewer that the sublime exists; he shows the viewer how it looks; his narrative is clear and detailed.” The “feeling of the sublime” that Aivazovsky experienced in his contact with nature, together with the classic tradition that underpinned his painterly memory, provided the main foundations for the artist's work. This is perhaps why it could indeed be difficult for the rational viewer, one born out of the Enlightenment, to appreciate Aivazovsky's work. For those with such allegiances, ships disappearing into a thin veil of morning mist could indeed seldom be anything but “delightful stage sets”.
- Prior to 1846, Ivan Aivazovsky was frequently referred to as “Gaivazovsky”. The artist did not begin signing his works “Aivazovsky” until 1840.
- Russian State Historical Archive, collection 1086, inventory 1, file 117, folio 6.
- Russian State Historical Archive, collection 1086, inventory 1, file 117; file 130. Published in “I.K. Aivazovsky - Documents and Materials”. Yerevan, Hayastan, 1967.
- Solomatina, N. ‘Drawings and Watercolours from the Tomilov-Schwarz Collection’ // “The Tomilov-Schwarz Collection” exhibition catalogue. St. Petersburg, Palace Editions, 2015. P. 57.
- Notes of the Odessa Society of the Lovers of Antiquities // V! Geiman. “Obituary of Ivan Aivazovsky”. 1900. P. 3.
- On the reverse, a sticker with an inscription in pen and ink in Alexei Tomilov’s handwriting reads: “By Gaivazovsky, 1834, in the second year of his studies at the Academy, the first drawing of his own composition that he has brought me.”
- Bulgakov, F.I. “Ivan Aivazovsky and His Works”. St. Petersburg, 1901. P. 9.
- Murashev, A. ‘The Princess Volkonskaya’ // “Novaya Yunost” (New Youth), 1999, no. 3 (36). “Book of Fates”. http://magazines.russ.ru/nov_yun/1999/3/murash.html
- Russian State Historical Archive, collection 1086, inventory 1, file 130, folios 1-2.
- “Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky and His Forty Two Years of Artistic Activity. 1836-1878”. Chapters I-III // “Russkaya Starina” (Old Times in Russia). April 1878. St. Petersburg. P. 669.
- Ibid, p. 670.
- Russian State Historical Archive, collection 1086, inventory 1, file 130, folio 7 (verso).
- Russian State Historical Archive, collection 1086, inventory 1, file 130, folio 5.
- Alexeyeva, TV Alexei Tomilov’s “Thoughts on Painting”’ // “Studies and Finds”. Moscow, 1976. P. 117. Hereinafter - Alexeyeva.
- Ibid, p. 105.
- Turchin, VS. ‘Images of Freemasonry in the Iconography of Russian Art of the First Half of the 19th Century’ // “The 19th Century: Integrity and Process. Questions Concerning the Interaction of the Arts”. Collection of articles/State Institute of Art Studies of the Russian Ministry of Culture, Tretyakov Gallery. Moscow, 2002. P. 66. Hereinafter - Turchin.
- Vasily Ivanovich Grigorovich (1786-1865) was a Russian art historian. In 1828 he became Conference Secretary at the Imperial Academy of Arts.
- Russian State Historical Archive, collection 1086, inventory 1, file 117, folio 2.
- Russian State Historical Archive, collection 1086, inventory 1, file 117, folio 2 (verso).
- Geiman, V! ‘Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky (On the Centenary of His Birth)’ // ITUAK (News of the Tavrida Academic Archives Commission), no. 55, 1918, Simferopol. P. 196. Hereinafter - Geiman.
- Russian State Historical Archive, collection 1086, inventory 1, file 117, folio 2.
- Alexeyeva. P. 121.
- Russian State Historical Archive, collection 1086, inventory 1, file 117, folios 3 (verso)-4.
- Geiman. P. 196.
- Alexeyeva. P. 113.
- Ibid, p. 124.
- Turchin. P. 66.
- Russian State Historical Archive, collection 1086, inventory 1, file 117, folio 3 (verso).
- Russian State Historical Archive, collection 1086, inventory 1, file 117, folio 6 (verso).
- Ibid, folio 7.
- Masalin, N. ‘The Art of Ivan Aivazovsky and the Early Romantic Concept of the Sublime’ // “Voprosy Iskusstvoznaniya” (Questions of Art History Studies), 4/93. P. 90.
Pastel, сharcoal and white paint on toned paper. Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts
Watercolour, ink and graphite on paper. 13.3 × 18 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Black chalk on paper. 35.5 × 53.8 cm. Russian Museum
Oil on panel. 64.5 × 69 cm. Russian Museum
Oil on canvas. 71.5 × 93 cm. Russian Museum
Oil on canvas. 67 × 96 cm. Russian Museum
Russian State Historical Archive Collection 1086, inventory 1, file 130, folios 3-4 (verso)
Oil on canvas. 97 × 126 cmю National Gallery of Armenia, Yerevan
Oil on canvas. 59 × 83 cm. Novy Ierusalim (New Jerusalem). Historico-Architectural and Fine Arts Museum. Istra, Moscow Region
Oil on canvas. 160 × 128 cm. Formerly in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston (currently stolen)
Oil on canvas. 221 × 332 cm. Russian Museum
Oil on cardboard. 44.5 × 35.2 cm. Russian Museum
Watercolour and ink on paper. 17.6 × 16.8 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Oil on canvas. Russian Museum
Black chalk and white paint on toned paper. 35.4 × 56 cm. Russian Museum
Oil on canvas. 56 × 81 cm. Aivazovsky Picture Gallery, Feodosia
Oil on canvas. 45.5 × 65 cm. Aivazovsky Picture Gallery, Feodosia
Oil on canvas. 75 × 108 cm. Peterhof Museum-Reserve
Oil on canvas. 206.6 × 317.3 cm. Tsarskoye Selo Museum-Reserve