AIVAZOVSKY OUTSIDE RUSSIA

Ivan Samarine

Article: 
POINT OF VIEW
Magazine issue: 
#4 2016 (53)

Aivazovsky was the key artist for the new generation of Russian collectors that emerged in the 1990s, whose work established new records for Russian art at auction. Ivan Samarine, who worked then in the newly-established Russian department at Sotheby’s, remembers a remarkable decade, as well as some key collectors from earlier generations, whose lasting enthusiasm for Aivazovsky ensured that the artist’s reputation remained constant on the international art scene. Samarine’s “Light, Water and Sky: The Paintings of Ivan Aivazovsky”, coauthored with Gianni Caffiero, will be published in a Russian version this year.

In 1988, when the late, great Russophile and connoisseur John Stuart was arguing the case for creating a Russian department at Sotheby's auction house for the first time - a department that would unite under one London-based team icons, works of art and paintings - he was told by the then head of 19th century painting in London: “In principle I have no objection, but there are one or two Russian painters who we [the 19th century picture department] will not surrender: Harlamoff and Pokhitonov [both these painters had lived, worked and exhibited in Europe, and had a loyal customer base there], and of course any major pictures by Aivazovsky.”

Despite these political difficulties with our colleagues, the Russian department came into being in the autumn of 1988, and we, the new Russian department, were finally permitted to include any Aivazovskys that we found in our auctions. Not much more than a year later, on one of our walks around the huge Sotheby's basement, where all the pictures are stored in racks, John Stuart and I came across a magnificent depiction of St. Isaac's Cathedral on a frosty day. It quite literally lit up the gloomy basement with emanations of reflected silvery, snowy light, and for a moment we were held spellbound. I asked John where he had found it, to which he replied that he had assumed that I was responsible for its appearance.

Suddenly, we realized the likely truth; it had been consigned to the 19th century picture department, which no doubt intended to include it in one of their auctions. At once, we picked it up and carried it by hand up several flights of windy stairs, across a corridor and into our tiny office, which looked over Maddox Street. There, we installed it above the chimney piece, and for two or three weeks afterwards were greeted every morning by the heavy St. Petersburg sky, the golden glow of the cathedral cupola and the hazy purple fug around ice merchants, cavalry officers and passers-by of another time. Then one day the same head of 19th century paintings came into our office, and was about to confess to us the mysterious disappearance of a major Aivazovsky, when he turned his head and saw it. Feeling like naughty schoolboys, we tried to argue our case, but the political power of their multi-million-pound department was such that there was nothing we could do, and the painting was duly sold in one of their sales in 1989.

The painting had been consigned to Sotheby's by the descendants of the owners of a German shipping company that had had offices in St. Petersburg before the revolution. When the events of 1917 erupted, the company packed up their offices and all their contents, and sent everything back to Germany, where the painting had remained ever since. As it turned out, both the buyer, Ivor Mazure, a long-established London dealer in Russian works of art and paintings, and the under-bidder, a New York-based Aivazovsky collector of Armenian descent, were clients of the Russian department rather than of 19th century pictures, but the profit, and the glory went to them.

Of the three painters named by the head of the 19th century department, only Aivazovsky had lived in Russia all his life, so what was it that nearly 100 years after his death still made him a stalwart of European picture sales, long before the collapse of the Iron Curtain allowed Russians to take part in the international art market for the first time since the First World War? There are many factors that play a role in the answer to this question. Most importantly, he was an extremely productive artist, who by his own account painted more than 6,000 pictures in his long lifetime. The art market loves a proper supply of paintings: we know very little of the real price levels that would be achieved by such painters as Bryullov, Ivanov, or Vrubel because their paintings hardly ever come up for sale. It would be more or less impossible to set out to “collect” these artists; paintings by Aivazovsky, on the other hand, appear at auctions around the world extremely regularly, and at the major Russian auctions of Sotheby's and Christies there is hardly ever a catalogue in which they do not feature. This is simply because there are so many of them in existence in private collections; and the “three Ds” of the art market - debt, death and divorce - ensure that there is a constant supply. And again, unlike most Russian painters, they exist in great numbers in private collections outside Russia, because the artist held so many exhibitions all over the world during his lifetime. There is hardly a European capital in which he did not exhibit, and in 1892 he even reached America, exhibiting in New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Washington. His paintings were purchased by European and American clients, have been handed down over the generations, and have regularly been traded by galleries or at auction.

The next factor is that his subject matter, the sea, is both universal and timeless in its appeal. Russian painting of the second half of the 19th century was very tied up with its own particular world, the gaze of the “Peredvizhniki” (Wanderers) focused on the political and social questions of the day. But historical movements come and go, and the corruption of the monasteries in the 1860s or the plight of barge haulers on the Volga in the 1870s, however interesting to a student of Russian history, understandably mean less to a 20th century European art lover than Aivazovsky's marine paintings. In addition, Aivazovsky painted the sea and sea coasts all over the world; he painted all the coasts of the Black Sea, the Baltic, and every part of the Aegean and the Mediterranean. He also painted cityscapes: we know not only Moscow and St. Petersburg and the cities of the Russian Empire through his brush, but also Athens, Istanbul, Cairo, Venice, the Gulf of Naples, Malta, Nice, Biarritz and even Stockholm and New York, and clearly these are subjects that appealed to collectors in those cities in the 19th century, and continue to appeal today.

The third and final factor that explains Aivazovsky's enduring popularity outside Russia in the 20th and 21st centuries is his cosmopolitan nature; an Armenian who was fiercely loyal to his first patron, Nicholas I, and to the Russian Empire, he was born and lived in Crimea but also worked extensively for the Turkish Sultan. Because painting as an art form was only just beginning to be accepted in the Muslim Ottoman Empire - and there only in the very highest, educated and Europhile circles - the Turks have extremely few 19th century painters of their own. Aivazovsky, who visited Istanbul so often in his lifetime and completed a whole cycle of pictures of the city, has been adopted by the Turkish art-loving public as one of their own. Similarly Greeks, who for much of the 19th and early 20th century lived in communities from Istanbul to Alexandria in Egypt, were fiercely loyal to the painter who supported their struggle for independence. It used to be said amongst the Greek community in Alexandria that no living-room was complete without a grand piano and an Aivazovsky on the wall, and nearly every old painting of the sea in Istanbul bears an imitation of Aivazovsky's signature. So these four communities, in particular the Armenians, who lived in numbers in France, New York, Los Angeles and South America; emigre Russians, who lived all over the world; and the Turks and the Greeks were a constant source of Aivazovsky pictures for the art market, and newer generations also often then themselves became collectors.

His pictures were sold successfully at auctions of European 19th century art throughout the 20th century, and in the brief period between the creation of the Russian department in 1988 and the arrival of the first Russian clients in 1992, Aivazovsky was always the most expensive painter in the biannual Russian auctions. Once Russian clients started to take part in international auctions, this position was cemented still further, and the rising prices, as is usual in the art market, had the effect of drawing out more and more spectacular and previously unknown pictures from private western collections.

The first major painting that changed both the price levels for Aivazovsky, and, by extension, for Russian art as a whole, came from a private collection in Greece. In early 1994, I received a telephone call asking me to go to Athens to look at a large painting hanging in an apartment that had recently been inherited. When I arrived, it was clear that the apartment had not been lived in for some time. It was a bright spring morning outside, but inside the windows were shuttered and the rooms were dark. The owner began to wind a handle that lifted the steel blinds, and slowly light began to flood into the room. On the wall was the largest Aivazovsky I had ever seen outside of a Russian museum; 132 by 235 cm, against a dramatic sunrise, it depicted Varangians on Viking ships sailing up the Dnieper river. In 1994, no 19th century Russian painting - and certainly no painting in our department - had ever been sold for much more than £50,000, so it was with some trepidation that we put an estimate of £80-120,000 on the picture. After fierce competition, it was bought by a Russian client for £200,000 - a huge price as it seemed to us at the time - and set the tone for an upward surge that only reached its peak nearly 15 years later. It goes without saying that it was also a sum considerably larger than the value of the Athenian apartment inherited by the lucky gentleman.

Some months later, I was asked to go to Helsinki in Finland to look at another large painting. This picture, unlike the Athenian “Varangians”, was not hanging on a wall, but standing vertically in the cupboard of a Finnish picture dealer, but even from this unfavourable vantage point I could see at once that I was in the presence of a masterpiece. Nearly two meters long, it depicted the city of Constantinople from Beyoglu, with the baroque Nusretiye Mosque in the foreground and the whole of the Golden Horn glowing in the sunset behind. The subject could hardly have been better chosen to show off Aivazovsky's skills, combining seascape with cityscape, the whole infused with a romanticism, exoticism and the painter's dramatic light effects. It was also in sparklingly good condition, with all the artist's semi-transparent glazes intact. Newly emboldened by our success with the “Varangians”, we placed a pre-sale estimate on the picture of £250-350,000 for our summer sale of 1994. Again, there was fierce competition during the auction, but this time the winner was a Turkish client, who had to pay £325,000. The painting hung on his wall for 17 years; in 2012, he sold it through Sotheby's again. This time it made £3,233,000.

Perhaps surprisingly, however - with the obvious exceptions of Turkey and those cities which formed part of the Russian Empire in the artist's lifetime - there are very few Aivazovsky paintings in public collections outside Russia. There are some in the monastery of San Lazzaro in Venice, where Aivazovsky's brother Gabriel had studied; a couple in the Louvre in Paris, both of them loaned out to the museum of the Breton seaport of Brest; and one in the museum of the German city of Kiel. There is the self-portrait in the Uffizzi in Florence, given to the Gallery by the artist himself; but there are none, for instance, in the National Gallery of the United Kingdom, and only three tiny pictures in the Metropolitan in New York, none of them on permanent display. It is interesting to speculate as to why this should be the case. Perhaps it was an accident of the 20th century; Aivazovsky's pictures have always been quite expensive, both in his lifetime and afterwards, and until the last quarter of the 20th century, 19th century painting had fallen out of fashion. Perhaps those museums that did have budgets to buy 19th century works were more inclined to buy their own painters; or perhaps a lack of expertise, and limited contact with Russian specialists, frightened some museums off.

However, interest and scholarship was strongly maintained by private collectors. Perhaps the greatest of these was Andrew Shahinian, through whose hands passed very many first-rate pictures, and who, even having sold many pictures along the way, still had an impressive and impeccable collection when he died in 2005. Born in Yerevan in 1918, he emigrated to America with his family when he was a child. Shahinian spent the Second World War in the Air Force as a bomber pilot and flying instructor, and then ran a successful series of graphic arts companies. The patriarch of a large extended family, he was an accomplished musician with an extraordinary repertoire of Armenian folk songs, many of which he knew by heart. I have fond memories of him driving me from his home in New Jersey to Manhattan while singing folk songs at the top of his lungs. But clearly Aivazovsky was a great passion for him. He bought his first picture, a moonlit shipwreck, in the mid-1960s; it remained a favourite and is still in the collection of his family. He used to come to the auctions at Sotheby's in London during the late 1980s and early 1990s, at a time when we were still learning our trade, slowly gathering the knowledge and expertise to be able to distinguish real pictures from forgeries or old copies, and not always successfully. Shahinian on more than one occasion gently nudged us in the right direction. The catalogue of an exhibition he organized in New Jersey in 1988, “Aivazovsky in America”, contains just a few of some of the many great Aivazovsky paintings which his enthusiasm and love helped preserve for future generations.

Amongst the paintings exhibited in “Aivazovsky in America” were a remarkable pair of pictures which tell an interesting story of nearly 70 years of Russian-American relations. After hearing of the failed harvests in Russia in 1891 and the ensuing famine, and in the face of arguments and consequential inaction by the US government of the time, a private American citizen by the name of WC. Edgar organized American farmers to donate their surplus grain to be sent to Russia. Eventually he managed to gather more than one million pounds of grain. Six American ships, which were themselves donated free of charge by shipping companies, set sail across the Atlantic for Russia. Edgar accompanied the second of these, which arrived in St. Petersburg in the spring of 1892. The American aid was gratefully received, with fireworks and celebrations, and in the following year Tsar Alexander III sent two ships to America laden with gifts as a ceremonial gesture of thanks. Aivazovsky, who himself embarked on his last great voyage to America in the following year, painted a pair of pictures depicting the “The Relief Ship” and “Distributing Supplies”. While in Washington, Aivazovsky presented the pair to the Corcoran Gallery. There they remained right up until the 1960s, when Jacqueline Kennedy decided to borrow them to hang them in the “Fish Room” in the White House - so called because Theodore Roosevelt had kept an aquarium there - which was used for meetings with foreign diplomats and for press conferences. Thanks to Jacqueline Kennedy, Aivazovsky's pictures therefore served as a backdrop to some of the most dramatic and important negotiations ever held between America and the Soviet Union, including the resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. The first of the pictures shows one of the American relief ships - perhaps the one with WC. Edgar aboard - arriving in St. Petersburg, while small boats containing sailors and ordinary citizens welcome them. The other shows the American grain being distributed by Russians on a troika holding the American flag, while people on both sides of the street cheer them on.

The paintings were among more than 100 pictures de-accessioned by the Corcoran Gallery, allegedly because of an “acute storage problem” and sold
at Sotheby's in New York in 1979. They passed into a private Pennsylvania collection, and were not seen again until the exhibition organized by Andrew Shahinian in 1988.

Andreas Roubian was a friend and pupil of Shahinian, but from a younger generation, and he is the proud owner of what is certainly the largest and most wide-ranging collection of Aivazovsky outside Russia. He made his money from computer software in the early 1980s, and together with Max Schweitzer, who owned a large 19th century paintings gallery on Madison Avenue and was a huge admirer of Aivazovsky, travelled the world in search of paintings. He bought his first picture in 1984, and now owns more than 50 works by the artist, encompassing every period and subject.

On the other side of the Atlantic is Gianni Caffiero, a collector through whose hands dozens of works by Aivazovsky have passed. His father opened the first pasta factory in Istanbul, and Caffiero was born there in 1953. His landlady, with whom he had a youthful love affair, had an Aivazovsky picture hanging on the wall, and the painting made a lifelong impression on him. Over the last 30 years he has found Aivazovsky paintings on every continent except Antarctica, and, along with the present author, has published two monographs on the artist, the first to be written in the English language, which also have been translated into Turkish and German. A Russian version is set for publication later this year.

Whereas the “American Aid” paintings passed in and out of obscurity during their time in America, there are examples of other pictures exhibited by Aivazovsky during his time in the United States which disappeared completely, only to re-emerge by chance more than a century later. One example, with which I was fortunate to have been involved, was the picture “A Street in Bakhchysarai”. In 2013 a small, dirty picture, catalogued as an “Orientalist Street Scene”, was offered for sale in a small New York State auction house. I was alerted to it by a Manhattan picture dealer, who suspected that it may have been by Aivazovsky, although he found the subject matter unusual. I was immediately interested by the fact that the painting was dated 1892, the year of Aivazovsky's journey and exhibitions in America; that it had an old United States customs stamp affixed to the stretcher, and that it was signed twice, once in Russian, and once in Latin letters, as was often the case with pictures that Aivazovsky exhibited abroad. Although the picture looked visually not to be in good condition, and even had a small area of paint loss at the centre, I could see the artist's characteristic brush strokes, and the way that the paint surface had been applied made me fairly sure that in fact the painting had never been touched. I believed that once the century-old varnish was removed, and the paint loss restored, the colours would sing out again.

After a little more research I came across a document preserved in the Russian Central State Literary Archive (Ts.G.L.A.) in Aivazovsky's own handwriting in which he lists the 20 pictures that he intended to bring with him to America for exhibition in Chicago. The first six of these were a cycle of large pictures on the life of Christopher Columbus and his discovery of America, but number 13 was entitled “A Street in Bakhchysarai”. As even through the dirty varnish one could make out the rocky cliffs against which the Crimean town is built, as well as a minaret and the typical two-storey houses with their wooden balconies and tiled roofs, I felt sure that this was indeed the picture that had accompanied Aivazovsky across the ocean and was number 13 in his list. The painting depicts a beggar receiving charity from three beautiful Armenian girls in national costume, while three Tatar elders peacefully puff on their hookah pipes on the balconies above: an idyllic depiction of multi-cultural harmony in 19th century Bakhchysarai. After cleaning, the picture was transformed back to its original rich and warm colours.

Aivazovsky's own estimation, made towards the end of his life - but not at the very end of it - that he had painted 6,000 pictures, has been the subject of some controversy. His pictures vary enormously in size, and the smallest, many of which were given away as gifts at his dinner parties, or mounted as brooches, were sometimes not much bigger than postage stamps. Were these included in his figure? And what about sketches, drawings and watercolours? It is impossible to say with any certainty. What is for sure, however, is that with each passing year the art market both within Russia and outside it adds to the total figure of known paintings, as they appear in galleries, auction houses or emerge from private collections on every continent. The fact that present scholarship, two centuries after the artist's birth, has documented not even a fifth of that magic “six thousand” makes the task all the more exciting for Aivazovsky's admirers in Russia and beyond, for this, and for future generations.

Illustrations

IVAN AIVAZOVSKY. Constantinople. 1856
IVAN AIVAZOVSKY. Constantinople. 1856
Sotheby's London, 24.04.2012, lot 6. Photograph courtesy of Sotheby's. Detail
IVAN AIVAZOVSKY. Constantinople. 1856
IVAN AIVAZOVSKY. Constantinople. 1856
Sotheby's London, 24.04.2012, lot 6. Photograph courtesy of Sotheby's. Detail
IVAN AIVAZOVSKY. Constantinople. 1856
IVAN AIVAZOVSKY. Constantinople. 1856
Oil on canvas. 125 × 195 cm. Sotheby's London, 24.04.2012, lot 6. Photograph courtesy of Sotheby's
IVAN AIVAZOVSKY. Varangians on the Dnieper. 1876
IVAN AIVAZOVSKY. Varangians on the Dnieper. 1876
Private сollection, Europe. Photograph courtesy of Alexandria Press. Detail
IVAN AIVAZOVSKY. Varangians on the Dnieper. 1876
IVAN AIVAZOVSKY. Varangians on the Dnieper. 1876
Oil on canvas. 132 × 235 cm. Private сollection, Europe. Photograph courtesy of Alexandria Press
IVAN AIVAZOVSKY. Varangians on the Dnieper. 1876
IVAN AIVAZOVSKY. Varangians on the Dnieper. 1876
Private сollection, Europe. Photograph courtesy of Alexandria Press
IVAN AIVAZOVSKY. The Relief Ship. 1892
IVAN AIVAZOVSKY. The Relief Ship. 1892
Sotheby's New York, 15.04.2008, lot 36. Photograph courtesy of Sotheby's. Detail
IVAN AIVAZOVSKY. The Relief Ship. 1892
IVAN AIVAZOVSKY. The Relief Ship. 1892
Oil on canvas. 46.5 × 75.9 cm Sotheby's New York, 15.04.2008, lot 36. Photograph courtesy of Sotheby's
IVAN AIVAZOVSKY. St. Isaac’s on a Frosty Day. 1891
IVAN AIVAZOVSKY. St. Isaac’s on a Frosty Day. 1891
Private сollection, Europe. Photograph courtesy of Alexandria Press. Detail
IVAN AIVAZOVSKY. St. Isaac’s on a Frosty Day. 1891
IVAN AIVAZOVSKY. St. Isaac’s on a Frosty Day. 1891
Oil on canvas. 110 × 144 cm. Private сollection, Europe. Photograph courtesy of Alexandria Press
IVAN AIVAZOVSKY. Distributing Supplies. 1892
IVAN AIVAZOVSKY. Distributing Supplies. 1892
Sotheby's New York, 15.04.2008, lot 37. Photograph courtesy of Sotheby's. Detail
IVAN AIVAZOVSKY. Distributing Supplies. 1892
IVAN AIVAZOVSKY. Distributing Supplies. 1892
Oil on canvas. 46.5 × 75.9 cm. Sotheby's New York, 15.04.2008, lot 37. Photograph courtesy of Sotheby's
IVAN AIVAZOVSKY. A Street in Bakhchysarai. 1892
IVAN AIVAZOVSKY. A Street in Bakhchysarai. 1892
Oil on canvas. 24 × 38 cm. Sotheby's London, 03.06.2013, lot 1. Photograph courtesy of Sotheby's
IVAN AIVAZOVSKY. A Street in Bakhchysarai. 1892
IVAN AIVAZOVSKY. A Street in Bakhchysarai. 1892
Sotheby's London, 03.06.2013, lot 1. Photograph courtesy of Sotheby's. Detail

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