At Ivan Aivazovsky’s

Natalya Zhirkevich-Podlesskikh

Magazine issue: 
#2 2010 (27)

At the beginning of autumn 1890, my grandfather, Alexander Vladimirovich Zhirkevich1, a military attorney and a beginning writer, came to the resort town of Yalta for treatment. As was customary in those days, he stayed there for a while. Treatment alone was not enough for his vivacious nature; he was curious to see various places of interest in the Crimea. He admired Ai-Petri Mountain, delighted in the sea views (“Will I see you again, charming land?”2), and spent a day in Sevastopol. He would visit Sevastopol again soon, with his young wife Katya3, who had come from Vilna to join him. By then he and Katya had been happily married for two years and they had a little son named Seryozha4, whom they lovingly called “Gulya” at home.

Alexander Vladimirovich wrote in his diary5: “I have just returned from Sevastopol, where I went to meet my dear Katashechka. Now I am happy again! While wandering along the ruins of Sevastopol and sightseeing, I came to the conclusion that the sad and prideful feeling that this city inspired in me, as a Russian, is not just a capricious impression influenced by a moment... No! I relived everything I had lived through and felt when I first visited this great suffering city. Katasha’s presence intensified my impressions and coloured them in a special way! I am glad that Katashechka was honoured to see this sacred place, and that she and I now have one more deep memory in common.”

They visited Bakhchisarai and remembered a touching story told by Alexander Pushkin in his romantic poem “The Fountain of Bakhchisarai”; Zhirkevich wanted to describe his vision of this legend, and he wrote a poem, “Bakhchisarai”6.

Alexander Vladimirovich learned that the famous marine painter, Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky, lived in Feodosia. Zhirkevich wrote to Aivazovsky and enclosed his autobiographical poem, “Scenes from Childhood”7, his first major work. Soon he received a response from Aivazovsky with an invitation to visit him in Feodosia. This is the letter from Aivazovsky:

Feodosia, October 4

Received October 5 1890 in Yalta
My dear Sir Alexander Vladimirovich,
Please accept my heartfelt gratitude for your attention. I received your kind letter and your book, which I am looking forward to reading with great pleasure.
I have heard a lot about you and will be happy to meet you. To answer your question whether I was going to visit Feodosia, I can say that I will stay home until October 12, then go to Simferopol for a week, and remain home from October 20 through November 3. I’ll be in Petersburg for the winter. I will be very glad if you visit our Feodosia, which may leave quite a sad impression after the Southern shore.
With deepest respect,

Ivan Aivazovsky.8

After receiving the letter, Alexander Vladimirovich decided to visit Aivazovsky, expecting to see a venerable artist absorbed only in creative matters. After one day spent in Aivazovsky’s house, however, Zhirkevich noted in his diary that the first meeting left him disappointed by both the pompous surroundings and society conversations. But soon this impression gave way to surprise and genuine interest in Ivan Konstantinovich’s personality. Aivazovsky revealed himself in a light unfamiliar to Zhirkevich — not only as an admired painter, but as a man who had done a great deal for his city.9 Alexander Vladimirovich was stunned by the way people in the town mentioned Aivazovsky’s name at every turn, the way they smiled and bowed when meeting him. Here is what he wrote when he returned to Yalta:

October 71890 Yalta
I have just returned from my trip to Feodosia, where I went to see the artist Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky, who had invited me to visit him in his very gracious letter in response to my poem that I had sent him. Until then I had not known Aivazovsky well, even though I had met him before.

The journey by steamship, especially the two nights during the storm when the ship was rolling, left me fairly exhausted. Nevertheless, I am quite pleased with the trip. Aivazovsky and his sweet wife, Anna Nikitichna10, were very hospitable. But I had
two different impressions of Aivazovsky himself: one impression when I first came to visit his house, and another during dinner at the house.

The first impression was not in Ivan Konstantinovich’s favour at all: he appeared as a very important nobleman, a bureaucrat, a celebrity aware of his significance... The town’s mayor was at his house when I came, speaking with him about Feodosia and its needs.

Nevertheless, Aivazovsky very graciously led me around his house and showed his paintings, among which are lovely pieces. After that he took me to his museum, where we met a gentleman who was writing in his notebook. Upon learning that the gentleman had come for the local baths, and also intended to write a newspaper article about the museum, Aivazovsky kindly invited him to use his own bathhouse, and ordered a servant to take the gentleman there. During the whole conversation with the stranger Aivazovsky spoke slowly and formidably, with a patronizing smile. When we returned to the house, we struck up a conversation, which, of course, I was hoping to direct to art — presumably, the theme most interesting to both of us. But Aivazovsky immediately changed the subject and began talking about the needs of Feodosia and all the things he had done for the town. He seemed to be pleased that I had noticed how popular his name was in town. I was unpleasantly surprised that he kept referring to his acquaintance with Delyanov11 and Durnovo12, and other bureaucratic big shots, calling them by their first names and patronymics.

I also did not like the rich, ostentatious, flashy furnishings of his house — golden chairs, mirrors, frames — gilded like in a merchant’s house. Even the drapes in the parlour were golden in colour. Alongside the truly artistic things, I occasionally came across some tasteless ones. In the living room, in full view, were displayed the pictures of the Royal Family and the ministers, with inscriptions addressed to the owner of the house. All of those pictures were placed in such a way that one unwittingly read the inscriptions. There were no pictures of anyone else. Finally, in the adjacent room, there was a huge self-portrait of Ivan Konstantinovich at full height13. He portrayed himself in a coat decorated with his stars and medals14, both Russian and foreign. He placed a sea view in the background, his wife’s photograph on the table, and made himself look like some person of the Emperor’s Family posing for an official portrait.

All these details of the dwelling somehow made one cringe. I couldn’t help wondering: did a famous artist really need to advertise his connections and worldly honours?! At first glance, Aivazovsky did not make an advantageous impression. He was of average height, fairly stout, flabby, no moustache, with the sideburns of a diplomat, long gray hair, small black eyes and a penetrating gaze. He looked like an ordinary office director. If you did not know that in front of you was the creator of “The Ninth Wave”, you would probably take him for a painter who had sunk into smug self-contemplation of his own bureaucratic position, proud of finally having worked his way up to a certain salary that allowed him to acquire gilded furniture and hang a full-length portrait of himself in full regalia in the living room to impress visitors.

I unwittingly compared the host of this house with Repin15, mentally separating them by an abyss... After visiting the museum, Aivazovsky took me to his studio, a spacious, well-lit room, barely decorated at all. He showed me his new work for a fairly long time, finished and unfinished pieces. Every one of them was like a poem! Was it truly the same person — the secret Councilor, the small Tsar of Feodosia — who created all these wonders? There was an enormous canvas in the studio, barely touched by charcoal — this was Aivazovsky’s future painting, “The Israelites’ Passage through the [Red] Sea”. Aivazovsky mentioned to me that he was not pleased with his painting on the same theme, the one that hung in his museum, and had an idea to paint something new and original for the exhibition of his paintings in St. Petersburg to be held later that year16. He showed me some of his studies as well, one of which he picked out at random and gave to me as a gift17. I have to admit, that sketch was more than casual, and if I were he (who seemed to care about his reputation), I would not give such presents. While talking about his paintings, Aivazovsky livened up somewhat, his eyes began to sparkle, and when he said that he “could not live without working in his studio” I unwittingly believed him.

He seemed to be pleased when, to preserve appearances, I politely praised his portrait in full regalia. He noticed my graciousness and remarked that he had painted the portrait two years ago and that he himself did not like it. He said he was going to repaint it. When I admired a large painting in the living room of himself against red cliffs, sea gulls and sea waves, breaking against the cliffs18, he said, “Yes, this is a powerful piece!” He briefly showed his gift of recall as well, peppering his stories with the names of the ministers and the high and mighty of this world. Again, it made me cringe, this ill-placed bragging about his connections, coming from an undeniable talent who would be remembered when all those other names would be forgotten.

Aivazovsky introduced me to his wife, mentioned a bunch of generalities about my book, and again immersed himself in conversation with the town’s mayor, having invited me to “drop in for dinner at half past four”. I understood that my further presence would be inconvenient and took my leave.

I had a walk to see Feodosia. It was a miserable town rising from the ashes, a dreary place indeed. One good thing about it was the constantly roaring sea and harmoniously rustling sand at the foot of ancient towers built by the Genoese, according to legend. Everybody in town, at every turn, spoke of Aivazovsky. There was a boulevard named after Aivazovsky and a fountain named for “Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky.” The museum on the hill displayed Aivazovsky’s paintings and the portrait of general Kotlyarevsky19. There was an altarpiece in the main church: “Christ Walking to Peter on the Water”20, painted by Aivazovsky. Aivazovsky’s name was on everyone’s lips — in the hotel, in the shops. I have to admit, he was praised by everyone as a kind and good man, as well as Feodosia’s benefactor. But why did he have to paint his name on an icon in such a way that it was visible from the middle of the church?...

At four o’clock I was at my gracious host’s. Madame Vinogradov was there as well, the very pretty, sprightly wife of the chief naval prosecutor. Aivazovsky had introduced me to her husband that same day. I also met chamberlain Khrushchov21 who held some post at Pobedonostsev’s22 office. Until dinner we sat on the veranda with a view of the sea, the city and Suvorin’s23 dacha, a wildly tasteless piece of architecture. It was still fairly light outside. We dined in our outer garments, in the open air, on a lower terrace overgrown with vines. During dinner Aivazovsky brought a parrot outside, and turned on the fountain. I ate heartily to the accompaniment of the burbling fountain. By the way, shashlyk was served (a local dish), which I ate for the first time, but about which I had read and heard quite a bit.

Khrushchov spoke more than others at dinner, mostly on religious themes. He argued that it was understandable to convert from one religion to another, especially to Orthodox Christianity. Ivan Konstantinovich and Madame Vinogradov contradicted him. The former said that one very rarely converted to another religion for faith and not gain, and the latter very cleverly elaborated on the issue that one should not abandon the faith of one’s fathers.

Next, the clergy was discussed. Khrushchov, who was evidently an expert on that topic, told us many interesting facts. He complained of the poor quality of our clergy... Recently, Pobedonostsev lamented the same thing in a conversation with him. Where did good priests come from? “Not so long ago”, said Khrushchov, “I visited the eparch of Orlov. I went to him at the request of some acquaintances to complain about a certain priest. His Grace listened to my request, went to the other room, and returned with an enormous book which listed all the clergy of his eparchy by name, with mention of all their moral qualities, family status, etc. His Grace opened the book on the page with that priest’s name and pointed to all the priest’s antics and punishments — incurred more than once — that were noted there. The other page listed the priest’s seven children. His Grace then said to me: ‘You, Your Highness, are telling me to get rid of him, but what shall we do with his children, who are innocent? And whom shall I replace him with? They all have shortfalls, large or small, they all have families, they all struggle and sin for a piece of bread. Do you think I do not know anything about this priest? I do know everything, but I am silent. I am silent because it is not in my power to do anything! For the same reason, [two words of illegible text] to give better priests. I will deny you your request, because the person in question is not even among the most compromised.’

“Then,” continued Khrushchov, “I pointed out that good priests should be fostered in seminaries. ‘Yes’, answered His Grace, ‘but the eparch plays quite a modest role there, and his supervision is a burden for himself rather than a service to the cause’.”

Khrushchov spoke with admiration of our Alexei Vilensky24 whom he knew well and to whom he sent a letter through me, asking to send photographs. “There is only one thing that casts a shadow on his activity: he never conducts a sermon,” remarked Khrushchov. “Pobedonostsev is aware of that, and, even though he thinks most highly of Alexei, he calls him ‘the silent one’25. A man as smart as Alexei could have done much good by his sermons.”

Here Aivazovsky intervened and expressed quite an absurd idea: that only fools and mediocrities speak a lot, but truly talented people are mostly silent, that Pushkin spoke little (?!), and so on. In my turn, I referred to only spiritual speakers — Macarius, Innocentius and others — and expressed my doubt that there was any evidence to suggest that Pushkin had been silent.

We spoke about John of Kronstadt26 and his miracles. After that Khrushchov said that, given our clergy, in about 100 or 200 years Orthodoxy would fall and transfer to Catholicism, because Catholic priests were smarter and the Catholic religion allowed everything under certain conditions. “By the way, only Orthodoxy has a truly moral doctrine, and only Orthodoxy, with time, may serve as a stronghold of peace in Europe!” Aivazovsky diplomatically avoided the issue of Orthodoxy and remarked that one must not so indiscriminately rebuke all other religions: “Even any pseudo-doctrine contains a fraction of truth. Pashkov’s27 religion is absurd, but if you study it, you will see that it, too, has a grain of truth. Some dissenters’ teachings are based on true ideas but darkened by ritualism... Therefore, one given religion may not be considered the only one that is true; every religion has something that is dear to people of a certain mentality, something that they consider gospel truth. Therefore every religion has a lawful right to exist.” Khrushchov asked me in detail about Alexei and drew a parallel between him and other archbishops — a parallel none too complimentary to the others. Evidently, he had spent his entire life in these circles and was well acquainted with the everyday life of clergy high and low.

Khrushchov and I discussed the upcoming opening of the monument in Simferopol at length, and we spoke about the Polish issue in the North-Western region. As for Aivazovsky, he was mostly silent, perhaps remembering his opinion of those who spoke too much. His wife also kept silent, as if afraid to speak up in her husband’s presence.

After dinner everyone walked to the upper terrace, where a wonderful view of the sea opened up. Aivazovsky [one word of illegible text] somewhere with Khrushchov. Madame Vinogradov left, and I was left alone with Anna Nikitichna. She suddenly became very talkative. She spoke about literature, about the lack of social life in Feodosia, about her love of poetry. It was clear that she was a simple, kind and sensible Russian woman, a stranger to aristocracy, which her husband had surrounded himself with, and hardly happy in her marriage. (I concluded three things, based on her conversation with Aivazovsky about some trip that she was opposed to, and some half spoken words and glances between them: first, that Aivazovsky was terribly jealous; second, that there was not much agreement between the two spouses28; and third, that Anna Nikitichna, submissive and silent in appearance, was not one of those women who you could push around as you wished.)

Before and during tea, Aivazovsky appeared as his other, more attractive, self. We spoke about art, and this time he spoke a lot and for a long time, about art in general and about the Academy of Arts and Russian artists in particular. He placed Repin higher than any other artist. He said that he found Repin a strange person. (Aivazovsky’s wife noted the same thing about Repin. I have no idea why they found Ilya Yefimovich so strange!) “He is a black sheep,” remarked Aivazovsky, “But the Academy of Arts must ensnare such a black sheep. He is the only one that we have! I have just recently told about it to those in St. Petersburg who should know!”

Regarding new developments in the Academy of Arts, Aivazovsky said that he had received a circular letter from Grand Prince Vladimir Alexandrovich29, in which he was asked to solve some issues by expressing his sincere opinion about them!

“Here is what I wrote to Petersburg,” said Aivazovsky. “The important and original thing in my letter, and what probably would surprise many, was my opinion based on my personal experience of studying at the Academy. During this course, science lectures must not be combined with painting classes, because one thing would certainly interfere with the other! I know by my own experience that, once you fully devote yourself to creative work, you cannot successfully engage in something else, and the other way around: weariness from the course subjects would surely weaken creative freshness. Autumn days in St. Petersburg are gloomy with the early dusk, during which you can’t paint. Let that autumn — three months — be wholly dedicated to the anatomy course, art theory and other such courses, without making students paint and engage in any activity that demands creative focus. Such an order of things would only help the learning process. It would be cheaper, too, because teachers would be hired for a shorter period of time and would charge less than they do now when the course lasts the whole year. This was my main idea.

“I also think that we should pay more attention to raw natural talent and admit naturally gifted students into the Academy without demanding that they meet strict academic qualifications. Once enrolled, if they have a remarkable talent, they should be given an opportunity to take private lessons on the side, thus compensating for their lack of education. What is the good of having a multitude of mediocre students who were admitted only because they had met certain academic qualifications? There might be a Repin among those who were never admitted and who, because of that, may not follow his direct path.

“Furthermore, I find it necessary that the Academy should direct each student to a path according to his inclination, and not allow students to choose a type of painting on a whim. Some of them might be carried away by paintings by Sudkovsky30 or Aivazovsky, fancy themselves marine painters and begin painting seascapes without having any capacity for it... Youngsters often are mistaken in determining their abilities: it is the task of older people to direct them to their true path. Also, parents look at their children in a biased and strange way. Sometimes parents mistake for talent a general trait that all children have: striving to smear everything around them in charcoal and paint. More than once such parents asked me to look at their children’s drawings, to see if they have talent. I have always poured the cold water of merciless irony and criticism on such crouching before my opinion. Here is how parents think: ‘Aivazovsky’s profit from his paintings is about 20,000 a year. But, of course, he is a talent! Our son is, of course, less talented. Still, if he has a half or a quarter of Mr. Aivazovsky’s talent, he may make ten or five thousand a year. It is better than some clerk’s salary...’ Parents don’t understand the whole stupidity of their theory of splitting talent into fractions. Talent can’t be divided in such a way! There is only talent or mediocrity, nothing else! I have always opposed the idea of letting young people choose a genre in painting, as I have seen many examples of what it leads to.”

In further conversation, Aivazovsky severely criticized the routine of teaching many subjects at the Academy of Arts. For instance, he considered teaching anatomy to the extent that it was taught, not only unnecessary, but harmful. “All those muscles, bones, nerves — it just confuses a student. Soon a student will be painting models, real living people whose muscles and bones are hidden beneath their skin, and whose limbs look different with skin than the same limbs without skin. A student who has studied the musculature and skeleton at length and so on will try to apply his knowledge of anatomy while painting a real living person, and he will end up painting unnaturally posed people of unnatural body shapes. Also, we rarely see a nude body, and a clothed body has a totally different form. Only painting from life teaches students to truly convey life. As for all those skeletons and mannequins with muscles: it is all nonsense, and harmful, easily forgettable nonsense at that!” Aivazovsky quite approves the idea of eliminating the discord between the Scholastics and the Wanderers, and is very pleased with Count Tolstoy’s31 and Bobrinsky’s activities. “But old professors, such as Lemokh32, are blocking the way! They feel that they will lose their significance when a stream of fresh air gets inside the Academy. The Academy needs this fresh air. Isn’t it shameful for us Russians that such a talent as Repin is still not a professor at the Academy?!”

Aivazovsky kept telling me how he could paint only studies from life, but he must be removed from life while working on a painting. (I told him that the same thing happens in poetry: for instance, I was delighted with the Crimea, but at that moment was not able to write anything about it.) During this conversation, he also told me that he put the water through to Feodosia from his estate (25 versts away) and suffered an annual loss of 5,000 rubles because of it. He showed me the picture of his estate.

After that we changed the subject to art once more, and to artists, some of whom were our mutual friends. He referred condescendingly to Sverchkov33, as a “horsey artist, not without talent”. He asked me a lot about Repin, his life and his views on art. He regretted not being in town during Repin’s latest visit to Feodosia.

When the conversation touched upon literature, Aivazovsky indifferently admitted that he does not know it, not even its best modern representatives. When I mentioned the names of many young writers, he responded that he had never heard of them before... But one should have seen how Aivazovsky came to life when he talked about the sea, the Crimea and its beauty! When he was showing me his paintings, he was adding to them with his words, “painting in” their poetry. He did this extremely effectively... As for Ivan Konstantinovich’s wife, she was still being quiet in his presence in the evening, as if afraid to speak out.

All evening long Khrushchov chattered on various topics without shutting up. His acquaintance with the mighty and powerful of this world made his conversations interesting, especially since at Aivazovsky’s he was not too shy to refer to them by name and to criticize, often harshly, their actions and words.

After tea, I took my leave to catch the steamship. Khrushchov soon joined me, accompanied by Aivazovsky, who came to “see the dear guests off,” as he put it. Aivazovsky thanked me for my visit and for the pleasure brought by my book. (The latter was hardly sincere since he probably had never read it!) He invited me to come to see him in Petersburg. One other trait that I noticed about him was his miserliness. I asked him to give me his photograph in memory of my visit, and this almost made him angry. “Those photographs are just wasteful”, he said, “I end up spending up to 300 rubles a year for them, a small fortune!” I noted that one could buy a photograph, but one would be happier to have the inscription; otherwise no one would ask him for those pictures. He said, “True. If you would like to have such a picture, then send it to me, and I will inscribe it!” I answered that if I’d known that this would not offend him, I would certainly have done just like that.

Khrushchov told me that Aivazovsky had asked him to remind those concerned in St. Petersburg about the existing project of building the railroad to Feodosia, and other things. For this purpose, Aivazovsky had reminded Khrushchov that it would not hurt to take along a picture with a view of the harbour in Feodosia from the mountain with the museum on top.

Khrushchov thought that Aivazovsky, having enlisted Khrushchev’s help, would buy him a copy of such a view. Not at all! Aivazovsky didn’t say anything about giving a photograph to Khrushchov. According to Khrushchov, he did it out of his miserliness! Khrushchov told me many interesting things about Aivazovsky. (He and I were traveling to Yalta in the same first class cabin of the steamship arranged by Aivazovsky with the assistance of the steamship’s captain. Our accommodations were quite decent and comfortable.) Aivazovsky, according to Khrushchov, was treated with remarkable respect and honoured everywhere in Feodosia. People respectfully gave way and bowed to him... Aivazovsky had complained to Khrushchov that he had insufficient means to ensure his future. He had said that he lived only by his art and spent a fortune on trips, and on the aid provided to his motherland, Feodosia.

Khrushchov admitted that he had wanted to wangle one of Aivazovsky’s paintings for himself, but had not succeeded. While admiring one of the small paintings (Yalta with pink clouds stretching towards the sea; truly a beauty!), Khrushchov asked Aivazovsky to sell it to him and asked what the price was. “One thousand rubles,” calmly replied Aivazovsky. Then Khrushchov asked if there were any pieces worth 300 rubles or so. “I don’t have such pieces anymore, but I will paint one for you for this price in Petersburg. I can’t give away a painting worth one thousand rubles for three hundred rubles, because others would have understandable complaints. If I ever gave a painting away at a discount or just gave them away, that was gift giving: you can’t argue with that. For instance, that’s what Durnovo got when he still was a friend of a minister!” Still, Khrushchov went on to express his astonishment that a painting smaller in size than half an arshin can cost a thousand rubles, and asked how much time it took to paint a painting like that. “Two hours, sometimes longer,” was the answer. Now Khrushchov got it into his head to give a present to Aivazovsky, not even directly to him, but through his wife, to obtain the support of a woman who has influence over her husband.

I asked Khrushchov how long he had known Ivan Konstantinovich. In response, he told me about his role in Aivazovsky’s divorce from his first wife.34 He said that Aivazovsky had owed him for helping to successfully settle the divorce. An Armenian spiritual consistory had divorced Aivazovsky and his wife based only on one application from Aivazovsky, whereas law requires the consent of both parties. The consistory had done it due to Ivan Konstantinovich’s high position as a councilor and artist. After he had been living with his second wife, Anna Nikitichna, for several years, the first wife decided to raise a scandal and brought up the issue of the illegality of their divorce. During the celebration of Aivazovsky’s birthday, Grand Prince Vladimir Alexandrovich asked Aivazovsky about his wishes and the latter asked him to beseech the Tsar35 to settle his divorce case. Even though the Grand Duke promised to put in a word, the case never moved forward. Aivazovsky knew about Khrushchov’s powerful connections in the Senate with people who dealt with such issues. He asked Khrushchov for help and Khrushchov arranged so that the case was reported to the Tsar! The Tsar ordered the case dropped. Aivazovsky’s first wife was obligated to sign papers that she would never pursue the case, especially since Aivazovsky had provided for her and their children well and more than ten years had passed since their divorce. It was obvious that the purpose of the suit was to create a scandal. Thanks to this service from Khrushchov, Aivazovsky was still friends with him. Khrushchov recalled the time when Aivazovsky had suddenly appeared at his doorstep asking for help, pale and trembling. With tears in his eyes, he had said how completely happy he had become with his new wife, how their marriage had made him completely healthy (?!) and that his new wife had been his consolation in old age, and so on.

The Aivazovskys stayed with us until the last signal of the steamship’s departure. Aivazovsky himself was such a gracious host that he would not let me go when it was time for me to rush to the hotel for my things. He offered me his horses for a ride to the steamship. He reminded me of his invitation. At the steamship, with his gray curls and dignified posture, he looked like some English lord on a pleasure cruise. Everyone respectfully gave him way.

Zhirkevich spent two more months in Yalta. On his way back to Vilna, he visited Leo Tolstoy in Yasnaya Polyana. He had exchanged letters with Tolstoy since 1887, and Zhirkevich was probably so overwhelmed by this meeting that the impression of it dominated over his impressions of the previous summer, evidently including his meeting with Aivazovsky.

It is not known whether Zhirkevich and Aivazovsky met in Petersburg (the diaries of that period of time have not been deciphered yet), but in 1899, in his collection of poems “To Friends” Alexander Vladimirovich dedicated a poem (“By St. George Monastery”)36 to Ivan Aivazovsky and sent the book to him. Upon receiving the book, Aivazovsky responded with a grateful letter.

June 111899

My dear Alexander Vladimirovich,
I have received your kind letter and the new book and read it yesterday with great pleasure.
There is so much poetry and lightness in it that, while reading, I had the same impression as when I read Pushkin.
I admit that I notice once in a while that some writers write with so much effort in order to use rhyme, like Benediktov37 and even sometimes Lermontov, that they don’t rise to the level of the nature they describe.
Well, I am not able to express myself on this subject the way I would like to.
Yesterday, having read the poems that you dedicated to me, I immediately painted a small piece “St. George Monastery on a Moonlit Night”.
Please notify me when you receive it.
Once again, allow me to sincerely thank you for your kind attention.
With sincere and deep respect,
Ivan Aivazovsky
The painting will be mailed tomorrow or the day after. There is an inscription on the back of the painting. It was not appropriate to inscribe it on the front.38

Six months later Alexander Zhirkevich sent his new book, a collection of stories39 from various years, to Aivazovsky. He received a letter in response — the last we know about the intersection of the lives of Alexander Zhirkevich and Ivan Aivazovsky.

December 22 1899

My dear Alexander Vladimirovich,

I have received your kind letter with the enclosed “Stories”. Please accept my heartfelt gratitude.
As you wished, I am sending you my photograph.
I hope you have a very happy New Year. Wishing you all the best.

With sincere respect,
Ivan Aivazovsky40

This letter is the last known evidence of contact between the great marine artist and Alexander Zhirkevich.


  1. Alexander Zhirkevich (1857-1927) was a public figure, poet, writer of fiction, social commentator, and art collector. At the military justice department in Vilna, he served as a defender, investigator, prosecutor's assistant and judge. In 1908 he was promoted to the rank of Major General. Zhirkevich resigned in protest against the introduction of secret instructions purported to suppress dissent, and capital punishment for political prisoners. A friend to many clergymen, public leaders and statesmen, he maintained correspondence with a host of writers and artists. See the article on Alexander Zhirkevich in Russian Writers. 1800-1917. Biographical Dictionary. Moscow. Volume 2. P. 269-271.
  2. “To Friends". Poems by Alexander Zhirkevich. St. Petersburg, 1899. Part II. P. 39.
  3. Ekaterina Konstantinovna Zhirkevich (1866-1921), nee Snitko, was a grandniece of the brothers Nestor and Pavel Kukolnik.
  4. Pavel Vasylievich Kukolnik (1795-1884), a historian, poet, writer, and professor of world history and statistics at Vilna University, spent the last years of his life at her house. This is why the Zhirkevich family still owns Karl Bryullov's famous portrait of Pavel Kukolnik, which is presently held at the Ulyanovsk Regional Art Museum.
  5. Sergei Alexandrovich Zhirkevich (1889-1912), the elder son of Alexander Zhirkevich and Ekaterina Zhirkevich.
  6. From the diary of Alexander Zhirkevich. An item of special interest in Zhirkevich's legacy is the journal he kept in 1880-1925 and, later, donated to the Leo Tolstoy State Museum in Moscow, together with his personal archive, photo albums and autographs. Manuscript department of the Leo Tolstoy State Museum. Fund 22. Notebook 11. P. 6-21). The text is quoted with the writer's original spelling and punctuation.
  7. The poem “Bakhchisarai" was included in the collection of poems “To Friends". St. Petersburg. 1899. Part 1. P. 2-7.
  8. Alexander Nivin (Zhirkevich's pseudonym), “Scenes from Childhood". St. Petersburg. 1890.
  9. Department of Manuscripts of the State Tretyakov Gallery. Fund 1. Item 61234. Sheet 1-2.
  10. Aivazovsky's efforts helped the city of Feodosia to build an archeological museum, an Armenian school, a printing shop, and a club. A great deal of work was put into construction of the seaport, the railroad, the art gallery, and the drinking water pipeline. In addition, a new Armenian temple was built and the old one was repaired. In 1880 the artist opened in his house a picture gallery, which, according to his instructions, was donated to his native city in 1900 (now the Aivazovsky Picture Gallery in Feodosia).
  11. Anna Nikitichna Aivazovsky (nee Burnazyan, Sabirova by first marriage; about 1857-1944), Aivazovsky's second wife from 1882.
  12. Ivan Davidovich Delyanov (1818-1897), a count and statesman, an honorary member of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences (1859), in 1861-1882 - director of the Imperial Public Library in St. Petersburg; became the Minister of Public Education in 1882.
  13. Most likely, the reference is to Ivan Nikolaevich Durnovo (1834-1903), a statesman. Was the Minister of Internal Affairs in 1889-1895, presided over the Cabinet of Ministers (since 1895).
  14. Aivazovsky's self-portrait is dated 1892 in all the reference books, but Zhirkevich saw it at the artist’s home in 1890. Aivazovsky himself told Zhirkevich that “he had painted the portrait two years ago and he did not like it himself. He said he was going to repaint it." It is possible that Aivazovsky later made corrections to the painting.
  15. A certain disdain shown by Alexandr Zhirkevich to Aivazovsky’s medals speaks of his ignorance of Aivazovsky’s biography and of the artist’s worldwide renown. The distinguished Russian seascape painter was an honorary member of several European academies of fine arts: the Amsterdam, Rome and Paris academies (1845), the Florence academy (1876), the Stuttgart academy (1878). Beginning from 1844, the Russian government regularly decorated Aivazovsky with orders and distinctions. The artist also received honours from foreign governments and academies. In 1843 he received from the French Academie des Beaux-Arts (Academy of Fine Arts) a third-degree gold medal for “excellent works", in 1858 and 1890 - French national orders of the Legion d’honneur (Legion of Honour), and in 1887 he was named Commander of the Legion d’honneur. In 1859 Greece awarded to him the Order of the Redeemer of the Third Degree. The Sultan of Turkey conferred on him the Order of the Medjidie of the Fourth Degree in 1858, in 1874 - the Osminieh Order of the Second Degree, in 1888 - the Order of the Medjidie of the First Degree. In 1879 the Prince of Wurttemberg conferred on Aivazovsky the Commander's Cross of the Order of Friedrich. (See Tretyakov Gallery: Catalogue of the Collection. Vol. 4. Painting of the second half of the 19th century. Book 1. A through M. Moscow, 2001. (The “Painting of the 18th-20th centuries" series.) P. 35.) Natalia Mamontova wrote, “In 1874, Aivazovsky was the second Russian artist after Orest Kiprensky selected to present his self-portrait to the Pitti Gallery in Florence, Italy, which holds a world famous collection of artists’ self-portraits." (Ivan Aivazovsky. Moscow, 2008. P. 21.)
  16. Zhirkevich met Ilya Repin at the home of poet Konstantin Fofanov in 1887, and their friendship lasted about 19 years. 120 letters from Repin to Zhirkevich have survived, as well as numerous entries about Repin in Zhirkevich’s diary. Igor Grabar wrote in his introductory article to Zhirkevich’s memoir, “Meetings with Repin": “Reading this diary convinces the reader of the author’s indisputable truthfulness, sincerity and modesty. The author does not put himself forward or emphasize his closeness to the great man. All this transforms Zhirkevich into somebody like Goethe’s Eckermann, but even more honest, considerate and smart. This diary explains a great deal in Repin’s art that had been unclear and disputable before; many dates and whole stages of life are corrected and illuminated in a new way, the creative process and the stages of creation of famous pieces are restored. <.. .> Not a single biographer of Repin can now ignore this diary which, in its nature, is almost a biography in itself" (Repin: in 2 volumes. Khudozhestvennoye Nasledstvo. Moscow-Leningrad. 1949. Volume 2. P. 119.) In the 1890s Repin occupied a central place in Zhirkevich’s life, and the artist wonderfully conveyed their mutual friendship in a pencil portrait of Alexander Zhirkevich, drawn in 1891 (The State Russian Museum).
  17. The painting “The Israelites’Passage through the [Red] Sea" (1873, Aivazovsky Picture Gallery, Feodosia). Evidently, Aivazovsky later abandoned the idea to paint a new painting on this theme.
  18. Presently this sketch is held at the Ulyanovsk Regional Art Museum, along with the entire immense collection of paintings, drawings, and other historical artefacts that belonged to Zhirkevich before he donated it to the state in 1922.
  19. The author may be referring to the painting “The Ship Wreck" (1876, Aivazovsky Picture Gallery, Feodosia).
  20. The museum was conceived by Aivazovsky as a unique memorial to Pyotr Stepanovich Kotlyarevsky (1782-1851), the hero of Russo-Persian wars in the Caucasus. Kotlyarevsky was a talented commander who made his way from a soldier to a general. He is buried in the garden of his estate, “Kind Shelter" (Dobryi Priyut), near Feodosia. Aivazovsky decided to immortalize the hero's memory, and in 1871 he personally financed the construction of a new building (designed by Alexander Rezanov) and placed it on a picturesque spot on Mount Mithridates. At the front of the building was a chapel decorated with the St. George's Cross (a reminder of the hero's victories), the icon of the Apostle Peter, and Aivazovsky's portrait of Kotlyarevsky. The rest of the building was occupied by the archeological museum of Feodosia's antiquities.
  21. “Christ Walking to Peter on Water" (1873, Aivazovsky Picture Gallery, Feodosia).
  22. The author may be referring to Ivan Petrovich Khrushchov (1841-1904) - a philologist, educator and publisher. A member of the Academic Committee at the Ministry of Public Education, and chairman of the publishing society under the auspices of the Committee in Charge of Selecting Texts for Mass Publication (since 1881).
  23. Konstantin Petrovich Pobedonostsev (1827-1907), a statesman, legal scholar, writer, translator, church historian. He taught jurisprudence and law to the heirs of the Russian throne (the future emperors Alexander III and Nicholas II). Pobedonostsev was a member of State Council (from 1872) and Chief Prosecutor of Most Holy Synod in 1880-1905.
  24. Alexei Sergeevich Suvorin (1834-1912), a journalist, publisher, political writer and theatre critic and owner of a major newspaper Novoye Vremya (New Times) (since 1876) and the Istorichesky Vestnik (Historical Newsletter) magazine (since 1880); he published academic literature, and works of Russian and international authers.
  25. Alexei (secular name Alexander Fyodorovich Lavrov-Platonov; 1829-1890) - Bishop of Lithuania and Vilna since 1885, theologian, Archbishop of Vilna and Lithuania from 1886 to 1890.
  26. Leo Tolstoy told Zhirkevich the same thing. Zhirkevich wrote in his diary, “Tolstoy knew the late Lithuanian archbishop Alexei ‘The Silent One' (as Pobedonostsev called him) when he was still in Moscow, and characterized him as ‘a good, kind person'" (Zhirkevich had started the conversation by praising Alexei, whom he had known well in Vilna). From Alexander Zhirkevich. Meetings with Tolstoy. Diaries. Letters. Tula. 2009. P. 199.
  27. John of Kronstadt (secular name Ivan Ilyich Sergiev; 1829-1908), a spiritual writer, priest and thinker, archpriest and dean of the Cathedral of St. Andrew Protokletos (The First-Called) in Kronstadt. In his lifetime he was worshiped as a “man of prayer and protector" of the believers. He founded several monasteries, churches and charity institutions. He was canonised by the Russian Orthodox Church in 1990.
  28. Pashkov's religion. The reference is to one of the protestant movements whose active proselytizer was Vasily Alexandrovich Pashkov (1831-1902). Notwithstanding his successful military career (in 1849 he graduated with honours from the Page Corps (the military school for the children of noblemen) and served at a horse-guardsmen's regiment, and later, at the Military Ministry, he quit the service at the end of 1858. In the late 1870s he acted as a reformer and preacher, following in the footsteps of the English preacher Lord Grenville Radstock.
  29. Most likely, Zhirkevich was confused by the couple's difference in age, and he took their marriage for a certain misalliance. In reality, according to numerous eyewitnesses, the spouses lived in total harmony. After Ivan Konstantinovich's death, Anna Nikitichna wore a black dress and led a reclusive life. She never left her apartment in 25 years; all the wars, the revolution, hunger and ruin went past her, and nothing made this self-appointed recluse leave her house. One can only admire this remarkable woman's devotion to her husband's memory. She lived with her sister and her sister's children. In 1925 the mother of the new director of the Aivazovsky Art Gallery persuaded Anna Nikitichna to go to the seashore with her. After that, Anna Nikitichna liked going there in the evenings, sitting on the bench and looking at the sea. Local residents began calling this bench “the bench of Anna Nikitichna Aivazovskaya".
  30. Grand Prince Vladimir Alexandrovich Romanov (1847-1909) was a well-known philanthropist, patron of many artists. He had a valuable collection of paintings.
  31. Rufim Gavrilovich Sudkovsky (1850-1885), a Russian landscape and marine painter.
  32. Count Dmitry Andreevich Tolstoy (1823-1889), a statesman and historian. An honorary member (1866), and since 1882 the president of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences. In 1865-1880 Tolstoy served as an attorney-general at Holy Synod, in 1866-1880, as a minister of public education, and since 1882, as a minister of home affairs.
  33. Karl (Kirill) Vikentyevich Lemokh (1841-1910), a painter, graphic artist and etcher, master of genre painting; he created portraits and landscapes, and worked on peasant themes.
  34. Nikolai Egorovich (Georgievich) Sverchkov (1817-1898), a painter, graphic artist, sculptor, and lithographer. He created genre pieces and portraits, historically-themed paintings, animal paintings, worked on hunting, travel themes, and battle themes. He also painted on porcelain and made sketches for silver and porcelain art objects.
  35. Aivazovsky was married to Yulia Yakovlevna Grevs (1848), a lady of British origin who worked as a governess in a rich family in St. Petersburg. Four daughters were born in this marriage. The marriage failed, and the spouses hardly saw each other for 20 years.
  36. The author refers to Alexander III.
  37. At St. George Monastery Dedicated to Ivan Aivazovsky

    The mind's blocked, confused and timid:
    The roaring waves fill my ears,
    The elements fighting just in front,
    The Holy Spirit reigns in Heaven.
    The oil lamps enlighten Black monks' dwelling cells...
    And as if led by evil forces The wild chaos, foaming, misty,
    Threatens the thirsty Shore, but in a brisk is crushed.
    The Fiolent cliff's open to winds.
    The waters' cries the wind to ears brings.
    The beasty legends echo gloomy rhymes.
    And distant eagles' screams.
    (Translated by Natella Voiskounski)

  38. Vladimir Grigoryevich Benediktov (1807-1873), a Russian lyrical and romantic poet and an associate member of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences (since 1855). His 1835 book “Stikhotvoreniya” (Poems) enjoyed great success. During the Crimean War he wrote a number of patriotic odes.
  39. Department of Manuscripts of the State Tretyakov Gallery. Fund 22. Item 61235. Sheet 1-2.
  40. Alexander Zhirkevich. “Stories”. 1892-1899. St. Petersburg. 1900.
  41. Department of Manuscripts of the State Tretyakov Gallery. Fund 22. Item 61236. Sheet 1.
The Crimea. A Seaside View of Alupka. 1890
The Crimea. A Seaside View of Alupka. 1890
Oil on canvas. 32.5 × 27 cm. Vitaly Machitski’s collection, London
Ivan Aivazovsky. 1899
Ivan Aivazovsky
Photograph with a presentation inscription “To Alexander Vladimirovich Zhirkevich”. 1899
Leo Tolstoy Museum, Moscow
Yekaterina and Alexander Zhirkevich. 1888
Yekaterina and Alexander Zhirkevich
Photograph. 1888
Archive of Natalya Zhirkevich-Podlesskikh
A View of the Bosphorus. The 1860s (1867?)
A View of the Bosphorus. The 1860s (1867?)
Oil on canvas. 30.5 × 34.5 cm. Vitaly Machitski’s collection, London
Vilna. Georgievsky Prospect
Vilna. Georgievsky Prospect
Postcard. Early 20th century
Cliff of Cape Fiolent near St. George monastery
Cliff of Cape Fiolent near St. George monastery
Postcard. Early 20th century
Yalta. Postcard. Early 20th century
Yalta. Postcard. Early 20th century
Marine View off the Turkish Coast at Sunset. 1898
Marine View off the Turkish Coast at Sunset. 1898
Oil on canvas. 38.5 × 30 cm. Vitaly Machitski’s collection, London
A Ship on the Night Sea. 1864
A Ship on the Night Sea. 1864
Oil on canvas. 58.5 × 78 cm. Vitaly Machitski’s collection, London
Ilya Repin
Ilya Repin
Photograph with a presentation inscription “To the dearest Alexander Vladimirovich Zhirkevich as a keepsake. Ilya Repin. March 17, 1890”. Leo Tolstoy Museum, Moscow
Ilya REPIN. Portrait of Alexander Zhirkevich. 1891
Ilya REPIN. Portrait of Alexander Zhirkevich. 1891
Italian pencil, blending stump on paper. 40.9 × 29.8 cm. Russian Museum
Steppe Landscape in the Crimea. 1868
Steppe Landscape in the Crimea. 1868
Oil on canvas. 27 × 43.2 cm. Vitaly Machitski’s collection, London
Sunset. A Troika on the Steppe. 1865
Sunset. A Troika on the Steppe. 1865
Oil on panel. 24 × 32.2 cm. Vitaly Machitski’s collection, London
A Sailboat off the Coast of Yalta. View of Mount Ayu-Dag. 1893
A Sailboat off the Coast of Yalta. View of Mount Ayu-Dag. 1893
Oil on canvas. 24 × 40 cm. Vitaly Machitski’s collection, London
A Ship on the Stormy Sea. 1886
A Ship on the Stormy Sea. 1886
Oil on canvas. 92 × 75 cm. Vitaly Machitski’s collection, London
Leo Tolstoy
Leo Tolstoy
Photograph presented to Zhirkevich on his first visit to Yasnaya Polyana on December 19, 1890. Leo Tolstoy Museum, Moscow
Leo Tolstoyʼs letter concerning assistance to the prisoner Yegorov, whose case was investigated by Alexander Zhirkevich. 1898
Leo Tolstoyʼs letter concerning assistance to the prisoner Yegorov, whose case was investigated by Alexander Zhirkevich. 1898
Leo Tolstoy Museum, Moscow
Ivan AIVAZOVSKY. St. George Monastery in Moonlight. 1899
Ivan AIVAZOVSKY. St. George Monastery in Moonlight. 1899
Oil on canvas. 13 × 25 cm. Private collection. First publication
Obverse of a painting with a presentation inscription
Obverse of a painting with a presentation inscription “At the estate of [illegible]. Feodosia 10th June 1899.
To Alexander Vladimirovich Zhirkevich from Ivan Aivazovsky [illegible] with profound gratitude for and the delight from [his] poem”
Constantinople. The Golden Horn. 1867
Constantinople. The Golden Horn. 1867
Oil on canvas. 30 × 43.3 cm. Vitaly Machitski’s collection, London
Rainbow. 1873
Rainbow. 1873
Oil on canvas. 102 × 132 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
The Black Sea (A Storm Breaks on the Black Sea). 1881
The Black Sea (A Storm Breaks on the Black Sea). 1881
Oil on canvas. 149 × 208 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Ships at Sunset. The 1870s
Ships at Sunset. The 1870s
Oil on cardboard. 10 × 16 cm. Vitaly Machitski’s collection, London
Morning off Naples. Vico. 1841
Morning off Naples. Vico. 1841
Oil on canvas. 73.5 × 109 cm. Vitaly Machitski’s collection, London
Title page of the collection of poems To Friends St.Petersburg, 1899
Title page of the collection of poems To Friends St.Petersburg, 1899
Ivan Aivazovskyʼs letters to Alexander Zhirkevich
Ivan Aivazovskyʼs letters to Alexander Zhirkevich
Ivan Aivazovskyʼs letters to Alexander Zhirkevich
Leo Tolstoy Museum, Moscow





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