The impressive painting Genoese towers in the Black Sea was painted in 1895, a period when Ivan Aivazovsky dedicated most of his time to his beloved Crimean home of Feodosia. Aivazovsky traveled extensively throughout his successful career, in pursuit of his own personal interests, and at times at the behest of the Russian Imperial Court. Aivazovsky's travels were predominantly within the Mediterranean and Black Sea regions, as well as throughout much of Europe, Russia, the Caucasus, and Egypt. He had become internationally renowned by the 1840s and was eagerly sought after for commissions and exhibitions in various parts of the world. The marine painter's age-long dream of crossing the Atlantic Ocean was achieved late in his life, when he travelled to the United States in 1892. Aivazovsky was invited to participate in the World Columbian Exhibition in Chicago, which was scheduled to coincide with the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's famous expedition. The Exhibition was eventually held a year later and included a selection of paintings that Aivazovsky had shipped in advance of his travels. Following several months of exhaustive travel along the Northeastern seaboard, the aging artist decided to leave North America before the opening of the Exhibition and returned to St Petersburg, and finally to his home of Feodosia. Although he remained very active throughout the latter part of his life, once he returned from the United States his travels were limited and he focused his time and energy on his native home.
Ivan Aivazovsky was born in Feodosia in 1817 to Armenian parents. His father was a successful merchant who had settled there several years earlier in search of opportunities in the bustling Crimean port city with ancient roots and a richly varied cultural fabric. From an early age, Aivazovsky's exceptional talents were widely recognised. The town governor, Alexander Kaznacheev (1788-1880), encouraged the young boy, gifting him with a set of watercolours, and inviting him to spend time with his family. Kaznacheev's influence with the Russian governing and cultural elite ensured that the young Aivazovsky received more attention and support. It was thanks to this encouragement that he won a scholarship for studies at the prestigious Imperial Academy of Arts in St Petersburg. There Aivazovsky studied landscape painting under Maxim Vorobiov (1787-1855) whose emphasis on plein-air painting had left a lasting impression on his pupil, even though he would eventually develop his own method of painting from memory.
With his immense success over the years, Ivan Aivazovsky had established himself as something of a celebrity. Financially successful and with consistent enthusiastic support from the Russian Imperial Court, Aivazovsky exercised great influence in Feodosia and the surrounding region, actively involving himself in local politics, attempting to negotiate trade deals, assisting with urban and rural projects, and taking part in other actions that were intended to benefit the area and its inhabitants, including the founding of an art school for local residents, which was connected to his own studio.
Throughout the years of his travels abroad, Aivazovsky was always happy to return to his beloved Feodosia, which remained his home since his birth, as well as an enduring focal point of his emotional attention. Fully aware of the rich history of his hometown and its environs, he pioneered and oversaw archaeological excavations in the area. Aivazovsky's love of his home was exemplified by his passionate interest in its history and his admiration for its physical beauty, which he executed in his paintings with exquisite skill.
Aivazovsky often depicted Feodosia in his work. Of the 6,000 paintings Aivazovsky once claimed to have executed, a significant proportion had been dedicated to the Crimean city and its environs. One of the most symbolic displays of the artist's connection to his beloved home is a reflective, if not nostalgic self-portrait at eight years of age, painted when he was seventy years old, The artist as a young boy of 1887, which is located in the artist's house museum in Feodosia. The portrait shows an attentive boy sitting on the edge of a rock, sketching a scene beyond the edges of the canvas that is not visible to the viewer; however, the figure of the young artist is entirely surrounded by a dramatic and beautiful view of Feodosia, with rolling hills leading down to its busy port, spotted with docked ships, encircled with many small buildings, and overlooked by the impressive towers of the city’s medieval Genoese fortress in the distance.
Tracing its origins to the 6th century BCE, Feodosia had been an important city on the Black Sea for centuries. Founded and named by Greek settlers, Feodosia had thriven until successive invasions of the Goths and the Huns in the 3rd and 4th centuries CE, brought sweeping changes to the area. The ancient Hellenistic trading outpost was at one time absorbed into the Byzantine empire, and over time witnessed influxes of various nomadic and trading Turkic and Mongolian peoples. In the age of the Crusades in the 11th century, the powerful and independent maritime Republic of Genoa began to grow increasingly stronger and gradually expanded its control of the Mediterranean and Black Sea regions thanks to its naval might and advantageous commercial treaties. By the 13th century, Genoa had surpassed Venice, its commercial and cultural rival, in its influence over these regions, establishing colonies along the coasts that were protected by its forces and shielded with an imposing system of fortresses that they constructed. Feodosia was renamed Caffa by the Genoese. Its wealth grew exponentially as it became one of the most significant trading ports of the era, playing a major role in the slave trade, as well as trade of various goods supplied by the region and the neighboring Silk Road. The Genoese fortress of Caffa was a formidable structure constructed on one of the hills of the city that dominated the coastline. Following many prosperous years, the Genoese stronghold on the area began to wane. The 14th century saw the outbreak of the deadly pandemic known as the Black Death, which devastated Caffa. The terrifying nature of the plague and the muddled attempts to control the environment resulted in the fortressed hill to be named "Quarantine Hill". The plague brought about demographic and economic decline to much of the western world, which culminated in the fall of Constantinople in 1453. By contrast, the Ottoman Empire was growing by leaps and bounds and soon seized the city of Caffa. The city remained under Ottoman rule until 1771 when the region was conquered by the Russian Empire following a series of wars waged by Catherine II. The original name of the city was restored and has remained unchanged since. The Genoese fortress in Feodosia that had been partially destroyed was reconstructed over time. Although elements of the original fortress walls and towers have been preserved, this was, in large part, a medieval ruin during Ivan Aivazovsky's lifetime. When painting scenes of his native city, Aivazovsky would often incorporate various details of this medieval fortress.
Genoese towers in the Black Sea appears to represent a section of the medieval fortress closest to the shoreline of Feodosia. It is difficult to pinpoint the exact location of these towers. Such details, however, were not always essential for Aivazovsky. An artist who lived and worked in the Romantic era, Aivazovsky often prioritised emotion over documentary precision in his depictions of specific locations. Capturing the spirit of a moment and of a place was key to Aivazovsky's mastery. Aivazovsky was able to consistently achieve awe-inspiring scenes on sea and on land, at different times of the day and night, throughout the seasons, with his indomitable talent and envied technique. Many of his observers and followers found it difficult to comprehend, let alone to imitate, his enduring ability to create images that are highly emotive and convincing.
Aivazovsky himself acknowledged that he relied on his sensitivity, understanding and memory of the scenes he witnessed outdoors: A painter who only copies nature becomes a slave to it, bound by hand and feet. A man without the gift of memory, gathering his impressions of living nature, can be an excellent copyist, a living photographic camera, but a genuine artist - never. The movement of live waves cannot be caught by the paintbrush: to paint from nature lightning, a gust of wind, the splash of the wave is unthinkable. In order to do this the artist must remember them and furnish his painting with these chance effects, just as he does with the effects of light and shade. That is how I painted forty years ago, and that is how I paint now; I am incapable of painting quietly, sweating over a picture for months on end (quoted in G. Caffiero and I. Samarine, Light, water and sky. The paintings of Ivan Aivazovsky, London, 2012, p. 88). Once in his studio, Aivazovsky would execute his paintings, relying on his memory and aided with the sketches he produced en plein-air.
Genoese towers in the Black Sea is an archetypal example of Aivazovsky's desire and ability to achieve dramatic effect. The remnants of a pre-existing maritime power, the ruins of the Genoese towers still present an imposing strength against the greatest force on earth - that of nature. Having spent countless hours near, and on various bodies of water, Aivazovsky had an intimate understanding of the nuances and the capriciousness of the sea and of changing weather. His paintings reveal the wide spectrum of nature's capabilities - ranging from the exquisitely calm to the terrifyingly destructive. Here, gathering grey clouds and heaving waves, which have begun to crash against the fortress walls indicate the coming of a storm. Captured at night, the scene would have been ominously dark if it were not for the illumination of a bright full moon. The moonbeams cast an other-worldly glow on the surface of the waves and the looming medieval towers, rendered with dark shades of violet, olive green and grey. Renowned for his exceptional ability to depict the transparency of water, Aivazovsky achieved this beautifully in this painting by applying thin layers of luminous jade green pigments to the rising waves that appear to absorb the moonlight. This is contrasted with the dark shadow-cast troughs, painted with deep blue-green pigments that can almost be read as black. One senses the changing climate as the waves grow in size and strength, overcoming the walls of the fortress. The crests of the waves and the ensuing spray and foam as they break are rendered with white feathery brushstrokes and thinly painted skeins. The sides of the fortress subjected to frequent rushes of water appear to have been smoothed like the face of a weathered cliff. Although ruins of a former empire, the walls signify an imposing durability having withstood centuries of attacks, both by humans and by nature.
Held in a private collection, this breathtaking night scene by Aivazovsky is an exciting rediscovery of a painting noted by the artist's esteemed biographer, Nikolai Barsamov (1892-1976), and is being offered to the market for the first time in forty years.