In his renowned 1897 play Uncle Vanya, Anton Chekhov coined the phrase “worthy of Aivazovsky’s brush” – which, according to Wikipedia, then soon became a popular Russian expression for something “ineffably lovely.” A while ago, when I was first reading Uncle Vanya, this phrase stuck out to me. I had never heard of this “Aivazovsky”; the reference seemed quite out of place in the text. So naturally, as we do in the 21st century, I googled it:
Examining his paintings, it became clear. “A romantic!” I whispered to myself, smiling slightly. He’s a romantic. Of course. Seeing as one of the main currents that runs through Uncle Vanya is a deep, unfettered admiration for Nature, it made sense that Chekhov would name-drop Aivazovsky. Even a layperson like myself can sense in his paintings the deep fascination with Nature that so defines Romanticism. Not to mention, here and there, they also exhibit flashes of realism: a definite philosophical focus in Uncle Vanya.
But there were a slew of Russian Romantic painters for Chekhov to choose from. Why Aivazovsky? Why was Chekhov so enamored with this artist, then relatively unknown? Why did he choose to include that phrase – “worthy of Aivazovsky’s brush,” those four words that propelled the painter into greatness – of all possible phrases? Returning to the trusty Google, I came across these words, spoken by none other than Anton Chekhov himself.
“Aivazovsky himself is a hale and hearty old man of about seventy-five, looking like an insignificant Armenian and an bishop; he is full of a sense of his own importance, has soft hands and shakes your hand like a general. He’s not very bright, but he is a complex personality, worthy of a further study. In him alone there are combined a general, a bishop, an artist, an Armenian, a naive old peasant, and an Othello.” (Wikipedia)
From this quote, it became clear. Chekhov paints a complex, but honest picture of Aivazovsky. There’s a quiet admiration in his words, no doubt. No matter that he wasn’t bright. It was his personality, so nuanced, so inherently Russian – full of both aristocracy and peasantry, brilliance and patriotism – that made him stand out. Perhaps the most important idea to note from all of this, however, is just how existential Aivazovsky seems. After all, the “complex personality” seems to fit a total of 5 roles, and by Chekhov’s own admission: “a bishop, an artist, an Armenian, a naive old peasant, and an Othello.” Now, maybe Aivazovsky is just Chekhov’s ultimate Renaissance man. But there’s an uncertainty to how Chekhov describes him, a wariness in his words, a hesitation in his praise, that further pushes me toward the existentialist theory.
Chekhov, too, was an existentialist, and an outspoken one at that. This side of him comes across clearly in Uncle Vanya through the character of Voinitsky (who is, in fact, Uncle Vanya!). Voinitsky is at odds with life, at his core, and most definitely an uninspired soul. He considers all fine days “fine days to hang oneself,” and finds life in excessive drink (“Because it is like living. Somehow—like living.”) While “nature will be fresh and breathing,” Voinitsky says, he will be dying; this is the bane of his existence. There are striking similarities between Voinitsky and Aivazovsky, Chekhov and Aivazovsky, Chekhov and Voinitsky – every iteration of the three reads the same under the existentialist lens. You could consider Aivazovsky a hidden character, of sorts. It’s fascinating how Chekhov manages to weave him in.
Most of the time, artists carve their names in history through one thing: their work. It’s what they are remembered for. It’s a reflection of who they are, their influences; oftentimes, the artist’s work serves as the best description of the artist themself. Aivazovsky is no exception in this regard. Our trusty Google and Wikipedia may be able to provide the background information, places of study, awards won – but to truly understand who this marine artist was at his core, past the résumé – I refer you to his work, to his paintings. Pretty much ever since I read Uncle Vanya and first researched Aivazovsky, his favorite paintings have served as my desktop backgrounds. I leave you with my selection. Enjoy getting to know the naturalist, the complex, charismatic figure behind brush strokes. The painter who charmed Chekhov and thousands of Russians after him, who brought the genre of marine landscape to his country, who could paint brilliant seascapes and translucent waves by memory. Enjoy the work itself, too. Simply put, it’s stunning. I don’t have a trained eye for artwork, but personally? These paintings take me places. I hope they do the same for you.
Credit: All digitized painting snapshots are from Google Images.