'I never cease to be evoked of deep emotion by the sea, whether in its calm stillness or its maddening ferocity'

The Ninth Wave, 1850, by Ivan Aivazovsky (1817–1900), 87in by 131in, State Russian Museum, St Petersburg, Russia. Credit: Bildarchiv Steffens/Bridgeman Images

The Rt Revd Prof Bishop Irenei says:

I never cease to be evoked of deep emotion by the sea, whether in its calm stillness or its maddening ferocity. In this painting, Aivazovsky seems to capture both at once: the ninth wave, which sailors’ legend claimed was always the most terrible, looms over wreckage to which the helpless survivors cling for life; and yet the water, right where the cross-shaped wreckage floats, is almost placid, and in the distance there is a radiant sun that makes the vicious sea appear almost a beautiful mountainscape. I have found few artistic works that capture the sense of hope in the midst of despair, or beauty in the midst of the terrible, as this.

The Rt Revd Prof Bishop Irenei of Sacramento is the Administrator of the Diocese of Great Britain and Ireland of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Of Russia. His seat is the Cathedral of the Dormition of the Mother of God and the Holy Royal Martyrs in Chiswick.

John McEwen comments on The Ninth Wave:

In 2017, a poll revealed Ivan Aivazovsky as Russia’s favourite painter. He was also the most famed in his lifetime and was acclaimed and honoured internationally. He met Turner, who dedicated a rhymed eulogy to him in Italian, was richly honoured with a papal gold medal and was the first non-French Chevalier of the Legion of Honour.

Today, despite popularity at auction (record price, $5.2 million (£3.7 million)), he’s virtually unknown outside Russia, unmentioned in Clark’s Civilisation, Gombrich’s The Story of Art, The Penguin Dictionary of Art and Artists, Kemp’s The Oxford History of Western Art and so on. Such is the influence of fashion. The excuse that Russia is not Western is hogwash. Look how we revere her writers.

He was born Aivazian (Russianised in 1840), the son of an Armenian merchant, in the Crimean port of Feodosia. War and plague had devastated the city and his impoverished childhood on the outskirts was redeemed by the view over the Black Sea. His precocious artistic talent was nurtured by an architectural apprenticeship and later by local patronage, enabling him to study at St Petersburg’s Imperial Academy of Arts.

The French marine painter Philippe Tanneur proved an influential teacher. Aivazovsky earned a gold medal and official right to be called ‘artist’ following an exhibition of his own marine paintings.

The Ninth Wave – the ninth legendarily the most cataclysmic – is Aivazovsky’s masterpiece. Does the mighty wave promise annihilation or the rising sun hope? Dostoevsky compared him with Alexandre Dumas: ‘Both produce works that are not dissimilar to fairy tales: fireworks, clatter, screams, howling winds, lightning.’ His museum, founded by himself, is in Feodosia.