A tour de force of Aivazovsky's evocation of light and atmosphere, this panoramic view of Constantinople is one of his most spectacular landscapes. Completed in 1856, the work was painted at the height of the artist's career.
Aivazovsky first visited Constantinople in 1845 as part of his duties as official painter to the Russian Admiralty, a role to which he had been appointed eight years previously by Tsar Nicholas I. Aivazovsky travelled widely during his career, claiming that 'travelling...can only enhance the love of art.' He was to visit cities across Europe with the Admiralty, but felt a special affinity towards Constantinople, noting that 'There is probably nowhere in the world as majestic as that town, when you're there you forget about Naples and Venice.'
His first visit to the city came as part of an expedition along the Anatolian coast. During this voyage Aivazovsky made many sketches, which he worked up into paintings in his studio in his home town, Theodosia, situated just two hundred miles across the Black Sea from Constantinople. Having grown up in a busy port town, Aivazovsky felt a particular affinity to Constantinople. The cities were linked both culturally and economically and both hosted large Armenian communities, leading the Ottomans to refer to Theodosia as Küçük Stambul, or little Istanbul.
Encouraged by his tutor at the St. Petersburg Academy, Maxim Vorobiev (1787-1855), Aivazovsky preferred working from pencil sketches rather than en plein air. This meant that he was able to paint a different view of Constantinople almost every year of his life, depicting different views and varying light conditions. His father paid tribute to his skill in a letter to the critic Stasov, writing, 'I never even knew that he paints human figures so well; there is so much life everywhere, so much brilliance... He painted five enormous landscapes between 15 January and 19 May, spending only twenty-one days on Constantinople...I don't think there is another artist in Europe who surpasses Aivazovsky in this type of painting.'
One of the works to which his father was referring is his 1846 View of Constantinople in Moonlight, now in the State Russian Museum in St Petersburg (fig. 1). Both the present work and the St Petersburg painting originate from one sketch, showing as they do the Golden Horn from the same angle. These paintings are remarkably comparable compositionally, although the Nusretiye, or Victory Mosque, is shown from a different angle in the present work. Aivazovsky found the results of painting from life unrewarding, and would embark on a work only with the complete picture in mind, stating that, 'I compose the subject of a painting in my memory, just as a poet does verse; having made a sketch on a piece of paper, I set to work, and do not leave the canvas, until I have expressed myself upon it with my brush.'
View of Constantinople and the Bosphorus celebrates the beauty and dynamism of a busy port. The Nusretiye Mosque on the right, commissioned by Mahmut II to commemorate his abolition of the Janissary corps in 1826 and built by Kirkor Balyan, displays a distinctive blend of baroque and Islamic architecture, making it an important landmark for navigation of the Bosphorus. The mosque faces the Selimiye Barracks across the Bosphorus, which housed the New Army that replaced the Janissaries. The minarets were reconstructed in 1926 in order to make them taller, and devotional messages and lights would be hung between them so as to be visible by passing ships. Beyond the Nusretiye Mosque a three-masted ship lies at anchor at the mouth of the Golden Horn, beyond which Aivazovsky captures the skyline of Seraglio Point, the Topkapi Palace, and the Haghia Sophia and Blue Mosques backlit by the setting sun.
The calm and serenity of the present work belies the fact that it was painted during the final year of the Crimean War. Despite having spent time making sketches in the besieged city of Sebastopol that year, Aivazovsky makes no reference to the conflict in his painting, instead recalling the Constantinople of peace time he had known ten years earlier. The artist had lived through three wars between Russia and Turkey, yet found himself in the peculiar position of being official painter to the Russian Admiralty, whilst at the same time under the patronage of the Sultans. Aivazovsky used his unique status to philanthropic effect, supporting the Orthodox Church in Turkey, and later in his life donating pictures to an exhibition aimed at helping Turkish Armenians.
In 1857, a year after completing this painting, Aivazovsky returned to Constantinople with his brother where he presented several similar works to the Sultan Abdülaziz, who hung them in the Dolmabahçe Palace. Aivazovsky's paintings adorned the palaces of both Russian Tsars and Turkish Sultans and it is fitting that the 1878 Treaty of San Stefano, which ended a two hundred-year history of Russo-Turkish conflict, was signed in a room hung with his canvases.
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