THE AIVAZOVSKY BROTHERS
Prominent cultural figures not only glorify the power of the human spirit and the creative power of genius, but their country of birth, too, or the national culture to which they belong. This was never more true than with Ivan Aivazovsky. The fate of the marine painter of international fame is set off in some specific sense by that of his elder brother, Gabriel Aivazovsky, an outstanding educator, teacher and pastor of the Armenian Church. The brothers were friends, they helped one another and always recognized the undertakings which brought success to each of them. Born into an Armenian family living in the town of Feodosia in Crimea, they later met in Venice in 1840 and agreed to spell and pronounce their last name, Gaivazovsky, in Russian as “Aivazovsky” and in Armenian as “Aivazian”. The contribution of both brothers to international, as well as Russian and Armenian culture is widely acknowledged.
A Great Marine Artist
The name and work of Ivan Aivazovsky is inseparable from Russian culture: he is, and always has been considered a true representative of the Russian school of painting. From boyhood, he enjoyed attention and interest in his talent, as well as the support and patronage of the most prominent Russian artists. His early drawings captured the attention of the mayor of Feodosia, Alexander Kaznacheyev, who soon became the governor of Tavrida. Kaznacheyev was instrumental in sending the young Aivazovsky to secondary school in Simferopol and then in 1833 helped him to enter the Imperial Academy of Arts, where the novice artist found himself in a very favourable environment. The prominent landscape painter Maxim Vorobyov was his teacher, while his circle of acquaintances included not only his fellow students, but also the great painter Karl Bryullov, the composer Mikhail Glinka and the poet and journalist Nestor Kukolnik. Aivazovsky became acquainted with Vissarion Belinsky, with whom he became friends, as well as later, in Italy, with Nikolai Gogol; his friendship with Gogol and the two figures' interest in each other's work lasted until the great writer's death. Aivazovsky always called himself a Russian artist; he loved Russia with a deep and sincere love. However, he was tightly bound to his Armenian origins as well, as one critic wrote: “His works reflect... the national traits and ancient culture of the Armenian people, whose loyal son he remained to the end of his days.”
Mkrtich, a priest of the Armenian Church of St. Sergius (Surb-Sarkis), made a record in the book of births and baptisms that, on July 17 1817 “Hovhannes, the son of Gevorg Aivazian” had been born. The artist's father was a merchant, but a man of education who spoke six languages. He came from Galicia, from Stanislau (now Ivano-Frankivsk), which was then a Polish city; after he had moved to Crimea, he Russified his name - to Konstantin Gaivazovsky. He married Ripsime, a Feodosia Armenian woman who had a reputation for her beauty and was considered an expert with the needle. The couple had three daughters and two sons.
In 1812, a plague epidemic broke out in Crimea, and the family, which was poor enough already, found itself in a precarious state. Alexander, who was born that year, graduated from the Armenian parish school and the district training school, and was then apprenticed to Abbot Minas, who sent the talented adolescent to the island of San Lazzaro near Venice, which was home to an Armenian Catholic community. At the age of 18, Alexander took monastic vows and was given a new name, Gabriel. Hovhannes also received a parish education in Feodosia, learning to read and write in his native Armenian. He worked in a Greek coffee house, developed an interest in music and even taught himself to play the violin; he was often absorbed in drawing with chalk and charcoal on the walls of houses.
The Armenian community in Crimea had settled there in the 7th-9th centuries, emigrating from their native Armenia, from its ancient capital, Ani. They escaped the invasion and pillage of the country carried out first by the Seljuks and later by the Mongols, as well as from the heavy oppression of Ottoman rule. By the 14th-15th centuries Feodosia had become a major centre of Armenian culture, and the Feodosia Armenians, who made up the greater part of the city's population in the 18th century, played a significant role in its economic and political life. In Crimea, the Armenians actively developed their traditions in architecture, in folk and manuscript art, and the Crimean miniature school has a specific place in the history of Armenian painting. Aivazovsky received its refined style and saturated colours as an inheritance from the past, which was also a beckoning call to his Armenian blood.
At the time of his birth, there were more than 27 Armenian churches in Feodosia, and together with nearby villages it had become a second homeland for thousands of Armenians: thus it was natural that old Genoese sources called these places Armenif maritima (Armenia on the sea). The mountain landscape of the peninsula resembled Armenia and attracted new migrants, and such factors may well have influenced the decision of the artist's father, Konstantin Gaivazovsky, to settle there.
Although Armenia is a mountainous country, many of its ancient folk legends are connected to the sea: the Armenian epic hero Sanasar emerged out of the sea, which gave him enormous strength. The Armenians still call Lake Van and Lake Sevan “seas”, and they have always associated the sea with freedom and salvation. That perhaps explains why, when forced to leave their homeland, they headed for sea coasts like Cilicia, Crimea, Constantinople, Athens and Venice. It was near Venice, on the island of San Lazzaro, that the Armenian scholar Mekhitar of Sebaste founded the monastery of the Mekhitarist Order in the 18th century. The monastery became a centre of Armenian studies, and in turn also familiarized Europeans with the history and culture of Armenia. The monastery and the island were often called “little Armenia”: it was there that Aivazovsky's brother Gabriel studied, receiving an excellent education.
The artist was deeply attached to his elder brother and felt a kinship with him. In 1840, after Aivazovsky had graduated from the Academy of Arts, he came to Venice as a scholar of the Academy and immediately went to the island of San Lazzaro to visit his brother. The artist would subsequently visit the monastery on a number of occasions, and he valued each of his stays there for the way in which he was exposed to the culture of his people. In the congregation's rich library the artist discovered the colourful and amazing world of Armenian miniatures which decorated medieval manuscripts.
Interestingly, Lord Byron, who was also attracted to the ancient and beautiful Armenian culture, often visited the island and the monastery in the 1820s. Byron even began to study the Armenian language, and together with the monk-scholar and linguist Harutiun Avgerian he co-authored “English Grammar and Armenian”. In its preface, the poet wrote about the Armenians: “But whatever may have been their destiny - and it has been bitter - whatever it may be in the future, their country must ever be one of most interesting on the globe...” Aivazovsky was always given the poet's room on his visits to the monastery, and the artist was inspired by the great Englishman to depict “Byron's Visit to the Mekhitarists on the Island of San Lazzaro” (1899, National Gallery of Armenia) in one of his paintings.
Over a period of several years Aivazovsky presented a number of his paintings to the monastery. The first was “Neapolitan Lighthouse” (1842), which still hangs in the monastery's museum. As a gesture of thanks the monks sent him a note: “Our love and gratitude is no less than the love and acknowledgement you have showed to our Order... We are always proud of your talent and nobility and we pray for your health and happiness.” At the same time, the 24-year-old artist also painted his famous “Chaos. Creation of the World” under his brother's influence, and gave it as a gift to Pope Gregory XVI.
In Venice, in 1843, Aivazovsky painted “The Armenian Mekhitarist Fathers on the Island of San Lazzaro” (National Gallery of Armenia). The island is lit by moonlight and resembles a ship, while the people in the painting look like dreamy travellers. Harutiun Avgerian, who had given Lord Byron Armenian language lessons, is depicted to the right, with the artist's brother Gabriel to the left. A red- bound volume lying on a stone - the explanatory dictionary of the Armenian language published by the Mekhitarists shortly before the picture was painted - provides the focal point of the painting.
Aivazovsky was concerned about his brother's future. The artist was aware of his brother's outstanding scholarly mind, and he exerted himself and used his connections to ensure that Gabriel might be allowed to leave the Mekhitarist monastery, so that his talent could serve the Armenian people in his homeland. The artist himself had always realized that he - both by birth and by descent - belonged to his people. Wherever he travelled, to Paris, Constantinople, Venice, Rome, Tiflis, or New York, he always visited Armenian communities. Moreover, he had always provided help to schools, cultural centres and Armenian churches. He donated both paintings and funds received from his exhibitions to them, and he endowed considerable sums of money for the construction and restoration of Armenian churches in Constantinople, and in Feodosia and the surrounding region. He painted panel pictures to decorate Armenian churches, and throughout his life he took an active role in Armenian public life. For instance, in 1866, he willingly answered the request of Gevorg IV, Catholicos of All Armenians, to paint a picture for a church to be constructed in the town of Brus on the site of one destroyed by fire, the subject of which was Gregory the Illuminator, the religious leader who had converted Armenia to Christianity in 301. In 1895, Aivazovsky donated to the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin a second version of his “Creation of the World”. It was one of the subjects to which the artist would return again and again with slight variations, so deep was his interest in the eternal mystery of the universe and its divine origin (he had given the first version of the painting to Pope Gregory XVI in 1841).
In 1845, Aivazovsky travelled through Turkey and Greece in the retinue of Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolayevich, which came into contact not only with official figures but also with the local Armenian populations. When Aivazovsky heard that one of the Armenian schools in the Ottoman capital had closed due to lack of funds, he used his authority and influence, as well as the presence of the Grand Duke, to organize fundraising activities, and within a year the school had re-opened; a similar episode took place in Smyrna. At the same time, the artist painted a picture for an Armenian calendar which was published in Constantinople.
When Aivazovsky visited the Caucasus in 1868, he had a definite plan to visit Armenia. He wrote in his letter to Gevorg IV: “I must have visited my unforgettable homeland long ago to be filled with joy again at the sight of it.” However, circumstances dictated otherwise, and an urgent invitation to attend the opening of the Suez Canal meant he did not visit the land of his ancestors on that occasion. Nevertheless, he returned to Armenian subjects in his spirit and imagination, and in his paintings many times during his life. The artist depicted Lake Sevan and - repeatedly - Mount Ararat, the symbol of his homeland. When in 1890 he showed the large-scale painting “The Descent of Noah from Ararat”, his depiction of the biblical mount literally lit by divine light, at the salon of Paul Durand-Ruel in Paris, he told his countrymen gathered there: “Here it is, our Armenia.” Five years later the artist gave this painting as a gift to an Armenian school in New Nakhichevan (now one of the city districts of Rostov-on-Don) at a ceremony witnessed by the 15-year-old future artist, Martiros Saryan; 25 years later, during the devastation of the Civil War, Saryan accidentally found the picture in the school's ruins, saved it and brought it to Yerevan. In addition, Aivazovsky presented seven paintings to the Lazarev Institute of Oriental Languages in Moscow which particularly specialized in Armenian studies. In 1925, these paintings were loaned to the National Gallery of Armenia. Saryan told the present author about two of them which are still on permanent display there: “If you take a closer look, you see that Aivazovsky has depicted himself in them.”
In 1892, recalling his long conversations with his brother, the artist painted two remarkable works for an Armenian church in Feodosia, “The Baptism of the Armenians” (Gregory the Illuminator, 4th century) and “Oath before the Battle of Avarayr” (Army Commander Vardan Mamikonian, 5th century)” (both now in the Aivazovsky Picture Gallery, Feodosia).
In 1874, the Turkish Sultan Abdulaziz invited Aivazovsky to Constantinople and commissioned him to decorate his main residence, the Dolmabahpe Palace. Meeting with Armenian artists in Istanbul, Aivazovsky told them: “I still feel myself nature's apprentice. So you too, follow my example, do your best and work hard. With joy do I notice how great progress we, the Armenians, have made in art, especially in architecture, in a short period of time. For instance, the palaces built by Sargis Bey are magnificent, and any artist would admire his refined taste and skills.” It is noteworthy that the 1878 peace treaty between Russia and Turkey was signed in a hall decorated with Aivazovsky's paintings.
Wherever the artist travelled, to Moscow, St. Petersburg, Tiflis, Constantinople, Egypt, France, Italy, or America, he always met with the local Armenian communities, took an interest in their life, particularly in the status of men of art, and contributed to their education: he provided financial support to schools and churches and awarded scholarships. Aivazovsky's faithful service to his people and his fame gradually made him a living legend and a symbol of national enlightenment in the eyes of Armenians all over the world. It was due to him and to the charm of his oeuvre that a constellation of Armenian marine painters emerged, while virtually all the Armenian painters of the second half of the 19th century received his blessing. The work of Gevorg Bashinjaghian, Vardges Sureniants, Vartan Makhokhian, Arsene Chabanian and Manuk Magdesian is closely related to the traditions of Aivazovsky, as well as - through him, and more widely - to the Russian school of painting. According to the Armenian painter Vardges Sureniants, Aivazovsky was keen to create a union which could bring together Armenia's cultural diaspora.
The artist learnt about the massacre of the Armenians in Turkey in 18941895 with great sorrow. In his letter to Mkrtich Khrimian, Catholicos of All Armenians, he wrote: “Yes, Your Holiness Supreme Patriarch, my heart is deep with sorrow for the unparalleled and unprecedented massacre of the Armenian people.” Responding to these events, he painted four large-scale works which depicted the awful tragedy. In December 1897, he displayed the paintings at his personal exhibition in Odessa, and donated all the proceeds “in favour of Greek and Armenian victims”. His letter to the Catholicos finished: “You, Holy Father, are there, we are here, and all of us in our own places mourn bitterly for the departed souls of our countrymen and pray for God's mercy.”
Light, and the idea of light, play a significant role in Aivazovsky's work. Diligent viewers will feel that, in depicting the sea, the clouds and the air, the artist was in fact depicting light. In his art, light is a symbol of life, hope and belief. It is nothing less than the specifically re-conceived idea of creative light, the light of knowledge, which has a long established tradition in Armenian culture and which was admirably embodied by later Armenian men of art.
Once, in conversation with Saryan, Ilya Ehrenburg asked the artist if Aivazovsky's Armenian nationality was reflected in his creative legacy. Saryan answered: “Whatever kind of storm we can see in his painting, in the upper part of it through the lowering clouds there would be a beam of light shining feebly but proclaiming salvation. It was a faith in this light which those who had preceded Aivazovsky had borne over the centuries. And it is exactly this light of which all the storms depicted by Aivazovsky strive to give an impression.”
Apostle of Enlightenment*
* This article incorporates material from Yervand Barashyan’s manuscript “Propagator of the Enlightenment”
Ivan Aivazovsky and his elder brother Gabriel were united by a deep spiritual kinship and appreciated the educational activity of the one, and the creative work of the other. Like his younger brother, who was utterly devoted to art, Gabriel Aivazovsky was committed to his vocation as a priest from his boyhood on. He also acquired prominence as a historiographer, a writer, a translator and an author of three dozen or so scholarly works, both major volumes and smaller studies.
Born in 1812, he was baptized as Alexander and later, on taking monastic vows, received a new name, Gabriel. In 1826, at the age of 14, he was sent to Venice, to the Island of San Lazzaro, which was home to an Armenian Catholic community of the Mekhitarists. The Mekhitarist Order was founded in the 18th century, and still exists today: over the years its monastery on the Island of San Lazzaro has become a major research centre, which specializes in the history and culture of Armenia. The monastery has a rich library, which now holds 150,000 volumes, including some 4,000 medieval Armenian manuscripts. In 1810, Napoleon assigned to the research centre the status of Academia Armena SanctiLazari, the Armenian Academy of St. Lazarus.
In 1834, the young monk was elevated to the rank of vardapet, a highly educated monk superior. The rank of vardapet is considered equivalent to that of archimandrite and is usually awarded at the conclusion of academic studies and in the course of a procedure similar to the defence of a doctoral thesis. The vardapet is given a rod of honour, which symbolizes the right to preach and interpret the Word of God, as well as to teach.
Gabriel mastered a dozen languages: Hebrew, Ancient Greek, Latin, Arabic and Farsi, as well as Italian, French, Russian, and had a fluent knowledge of English and German. His main working language was Grabar (meaning “literary, written”, Old Armenian), and he also taught European and Oriental languages, theology and philosophy at the monastery school. In 1836, his “Essay on the History of Russia” was published in Armenian, and a number of years later his two-volume “History of the Ottoman State” followed. Gabriel contributed to the landmark explanatory dictionary of the Armenian language, the importance of which has not diminished: it is still valued today as one of the pinnacles of national philology.
In 1843, Gabriel founded and began publishing the historical and philological journal “Bazmavep”, its title meaning “a polymath, an erudite”. It published scientific papers along with small pieces of fiction, mainly translated. The journal soon won authority, and continues to be published up to the present day. In 1848, at the suggestion of the Vatican, Gabriel set out for Paris, where he became director of the local Samvel Muradian lyceum (which the Brockhaus and Efron Encyclopaedic Dictionary refers to as the Armenian College of Samuel Moorat). While still in Paris, he started publishing the “Masyats Aghavni” (Dove of Masis) illustrated journal in Armenian and French.
After a while, the wider situation around the Order became more complicated, as the Vatican became increasingly discontented with the fact that not only Catholics, but also followers of the Armenian Apostolic Church studied at the college, which was under Vatican jurisdiction. Gabriel, for his part, became frustrated by the ceaseless pressure that he faced at the college; to resolve the conflict, he renounced Catholicism and returned to the fold of his national church.
In 1857, Ivan Aivazovsky came to Paris; later, he would admit, “I was happy to hear that Gabriel was then a minister of the Church of St. Gregory the Illuminator.” The painter spent several months in Paris: the brothers met almost daily and had long conversations. At that time, Gabriel resolved finally to return to Russia, and a new period of his life began.
In Russia, despite his low rank, Gabriel was appointed head of the Armenian Diocese in Bessarabia and New Nakhichevan. During the time he spent in New Nakhichevan (now one of the city districts of Rostov-on-Don), he became close to its mayor, the art patron Harutiun Khalibian (Artemius Khalibov), a connection that would play a significant role in his life. In Feodosia, Gabriel Aivayovsky continued publishing the “Dove of Masis”, in the form of a newspaper, in three languages (Armenian, French and Russian). It continued for 10 years, before closing due to lack of funding; that was also the reason for the cessation of another of Gabriel's major undertakings, the school that had opened in 1858 and to which he had devoted much of his creative energy. To learn to manage the school, Gabriel had set out with his brother for Moscow to gain experience at the Lazarev School of Oriental Languages. Vardapet Gabriel was the life and soul of the school, and he was considered a true apostle of enlightenment.
Gabriel Aivazovsky's diligence in acquainting himself with Russian literature never ceased. He was the first to translate Ivan Krylov's fables into Armenian, twice publishing a complete edition of the work. He translated the works of Armenian historiographers of the 4th-5th century including Movses Khorenatsi and Agathangelos into Italian, and translated several Italian, German and French books into his native language. Of his scholarly works, mention should be made of a concise Russian grammar and a detailed Armenian grammar, several historical sketches concerning the Mekhitarist community, the Khalibov School, as well as the origin of the Armenian community in New Russia, and the Armenian inscriptions which were found in Southern Russia. Gabriel Aivazovsky was a member of several learned societies, most notably the Societe Asiatique in Paris. In 1872, Gabriel was invited to the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin, the headquarters of the Armenian Apostolic Church, where he was ordained as a bishop (he later became an archbishop) and appointed principal of the Gevorkian Theological Seminary. Several years later, he became the head of Armenian Diocese in Georgia and Imereti.
Gabriel Aivazovsky died on 20 April 1880 and was buried in Tiflis, where thousands of people attended his funeral. One of his contemporaries wrote of him: “He was unselfish, like all the great-hearted men, and he lived and died in poverty.” (Grigory Karaulov, 1881).
- Novouspensky, Nikolai. ‘Aivazovsky”. Aurora, Leningrad, 1983. P. 5. Translated from Russian by Richard Ware. [The book was published in Russian, English, German and French.]
- Central State Historical Archive of the Republic of Armenia (TsGIA). Fund 320, inventory 1, item 871. P. 33.
- Quoted from: Bekaryan, Anahit. ‘Byron and Armenia: A Case of Mirrored Affinities’. In: Cardwell, Richard (ed.). “The Reception of Byron in Europe”. New York, 2004. P. 394.
- ”Aivazovsky. Documents and Materials”. Yerevan, 1967. P. 66. Hereinafter - Documents.
- The painting has been in the museum of the Armenian Mekhitarist Congregation on the island of San Lazzaro since 1905.
- Documents. P. 66.
- Quoted from: Khachatrian, Shahen. “The Known and Unknown Aivazovsky”. Samara, 2000. P. 9.
- Documents. P. 278.
Sculptors: Levon Tokmadzhyan and sons; architect, Vladimir Kravchenko. Simferopol, Pavel Dybenko Square (Sovetskaya Square)
The Abdullah Fréres Studio
Oil on canvas. 50 × 40 cm. Literary Museum
Oil on canvas. 155 × 101 cm. Aivazovsky Picture Gallery, Feodosia
Oil on canvas. 25 × 34 cm. Museum of the Armenian Mekhitarist Fathers on the Island of San Lazzaro, Venice
Oil on canvas. 98 × 120 cm. Private collection, The Netherlands
Oil on canvas. 130 × 170 cm. Stavropol Regional Museum of Fine Arts
Oil on canvas. 120 × 180 cm. Primorye Picture Gallery, Vladivostok. Detail: an Armenian captive woman prevents her captor from shooting at her liberators (Sh. Kh.)
Location unknown. Detail
Oil on canvas. 152 × 107 cm. Dagestan Gamzatova Museum of Fine Arts, Makhachkala
Oil on canvas. 82 × 117 cm. Nesterov Bashkir State Art Museum, Ufa
Oil on canvas. 50 × 70 cm. Armenian School, Beirut
Oil on canvas. 150 × 103 cm. Aivazovsky Picture Gallery, Feodosia
Oil on canvas. 92 × 72 cm. Aivazovsky Picture Gallery, Feodosia
Oil on canvas. 158 × 97 cm. Aivazovsky Picture Gallery, Feodosia
Oil on canvas. 158 × 97 cm. Aivazovsky Picture Gallery, Feodosia
Oil on canvas. 96 × 160 cm. Private collection, USA
Russian Museum. Detail
Oil on canvas. 124 × 192.5 cm. Russian Museum
Oil on canvas. 128 × 218 cm. National Gallery of Armenia, Yerevan
Oil on canvas. 47 × 39 cm. Central Naval Museum, St. Petersburg
Oil on canvas. 133 × 218 cm. National Gallery of Armenia, Yerevan
Central State Historical Archive of Armenia, fund 320, file 1, document 78 “17 - Hovhannes, the son of Gevorg Aivazian” - (Sh. Kh.)
Russian Museum. Detail
Oil on canvas. 246.5 × 319.5 cm. Russian Museum
Photo-collage. Aivazovsky Picture Gallery, Feodosia
Oil on canvas. 106 × 75 cm. Museum of the Armenian Mekhitarist Fathers on the Island of San Lazzaro, Venice
Oil on canvas. 66.5 × 100 cm. National Gallery of Armenia, Yerevan
National Gallery of Armenia, Yerevan. Detail