top of page

"The Ninth Wave" By Ivan Aivazovsky

Updated: Feb 28, 2023

Ivan Aivazovsky (1817 - 1900), a Russian painter, was recognized as a great Master of Marine painting, and his masterwork 'Ninth Wave' is a true treasure of Russian romantic art and the entire marine genre. Aivazovsky created nearly 6,000 paintings throughout his career, spanning from early landscapes of the Crimean countryside to the seascapes and coastal settings for which he is best known. Aivazovsky was particularly adept at establishing the play of light in his paintings, sometimes layering color to get a translucent look, a technique for which he is widely regarded. Aivazovsky was born in the Crimean coastal town of Feodisia and studied at the Fine Art Academy in Saint Petersburg. He was forever in love with the water. His inspiration came from his childhood experiences of the Black Sea, the cold and stormy Baltic Sea during his school years, and several missions made with the Russian fleet.

The NinthWave by Ivan Aivazovsky Oil on canvas, 1850.
The NinthWave by Ivan Aivazovsky Oil on canvas, 1850.

Ninth wave story

The painter was entranced by the power of the sea, not experiencing fear even in the most dangerous situations. When a ship was caught in a horrible storm, some said that everyone on board died. Fortunately, the ship arrived at a port, but the memories of the storm lasted with Aivazovsky and served as the inspiration for many of his paintings. Aivazovsky's works frequently portray violent storms and shipwrecks. He demonstrates nature's unstoppable might while people are lost beneath the waves and appear to have few options for retaliation.

The 'Ninth Wave' is unique in various ways. According to mythology, the 'ninth wave' is the fiercest and most hazardous in every storm. In Aivazovsky's artwork, we see just that: a massive 'ninth' wave approaching many survivors of a disaster. Humans are clinging to a sliver of a mast. Despite the dramatic title, the painting's overall attitude and color palette are optimistic: we see daybreak on the sea, the night storm has passed, and the survivors have hope. This fictitious contrast, along with masterfully painted sea, waves, and even little drops of water sparkling in the light, has enabled Aivazovsky and his picture to achieve popularity. The iconic 'Ninth Wave' is now part of the permanent collection of a Russian museum in St Petersburg.

“The movement of natural elements cannot be captured by the brush: to paint lightning, a gust of wind or the splash of a wave from nature is inconceivable.” Ivan Aivazovsky

This type of work is made when there is a period of creative growth and inspiration. This is not Aivazovsky's final work, which captures the stormy state of the water so vividly, but it was this picture that made him renowned across the world and gave him a "golden" ticket into the ranks of great painters.

Romantist or Realist?

Ivan Aivazovsky's career spanned the Romantic period in Russian painting. The majority of Aivazovsky's paintings are characterized by spectacular natural sceneries and dramatic lighting. Later in his career, he adopted parts of the Realist movement, and a number of his works, such as Moscow in Winter from the Sparrow Hills (1872), fell perfectly within the genre.

The black sea (1881)

The black sea by Ivan Aivazovsky, 1881

It is instructive to contrast The Black Sea with the French tradition of maritime painting to which Aivazovsky was tied via Philippe Tanneur and which featured works by Géricault such as The Storm (or The Shipwreck). Tanneur's approach influenced Aivazovsky's early on, and the latter's Steamer Off Dover recalls The Black Sea in its foregrounding of rolling waves with spume-fringed crests. Tanneur's water, on the other hand, is always more sculpted and fixed in time, like Géricault's. As his technique improved, Aivazovsky was able to portray a stronger feeling of motion, as if the French artists' concentration to surface detail was impeding their ability to communicate fluidity and depth.

That depth is unmediated in The Black Sea by the presence of boats or human beings (the solitary vessel is on the horizon), and the painting's startling triumph is in rejecting the distance that those mediating presences typically give. Instead, we are practically submerged. It swirls about us, and the sensation of movement is seductive. Instead of a sculpted surface, the water has a labile density. Where Géricault's and Tanneur's skies constantly competed with their seas, Aivazovsky's typical lightness of touch in the sky makes it pellucid, which adds to the solidity and depth of the water.

Stormy Coastline in 1882, A Heavy Sea in 1889, and The Waves in 1898 would follow The Black Sea, a quartet of astonishing paintings bereft of Aivazovsky's normally traditional connection to the sadness of the distressed at sea or the sublimity of light burning through the darkness. Those were the clichés of his commercial production, yet he could occasionally go beyond them to create paintings with enduring physicality and force, such as this one.

Until the end of his life, and Aivazovsky lived a long one, 82 years - the artist did not let the brush out of his hands, vividly responded to everything happening with the fleet, painted thousands of views of the sea, and managed to remain relevant, each time surprising critics, writing another article on the topic "Aivazovsky is outdated". There were several similar pieces...The realistic direction in painting entered the picture around the end of the century. He was chastised for his over-theatricality and the romantic pain of his works. He did not, however, respond to such claims with speeches. He retaliated with his work, forcing his prosecutors to throw up their hands and concede that they would never be able to convict Aivazovsky.


bottom of page