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Ivan Aivazovsky, ‘The Ninth Wave’ and the Russian Mindset.


Visual arts, performing arts and literature are all examples of theoretical and physical expressions of creativity found in our societies. At certain points in history, there is an explosion of ideas and at other times there can be a decay. Ibn Khaldun would associate such creativity as a hobby of sedentary people who within that moment need not be concerned with any approaching threat such as a nomadic people. Whatever the cause, the majority of humans are now living in a sedentary culture that rightly or wrongly permits time to delve in leisurely pursuits.

In this regard, policymakers, think tanks and academics alike utilise examples of creativity within their societies to promote a social cause such as raising awareness of a particular health condition, conservation of a species or habitat and human rights. It has also been used to reflect a nation’s identity, culture and observations of its surroundings; this article shall focus on this theme and more specifically Russia.

Ivan Aivazovsky, ‘The Ninth Wave’

Aivazovsky was a Russian painter (1817 – 1900) born in a port town of Feodosia, Crimea and so was naturally inspired by the sea due to being in close proximity. His masterpiece the ‘The Ninth Wave’ is regarded as a true gem of Russian romantic painting and of the whole Marianist genre.


Romantic paintings (Romanticism) refers to a deepened appreciation of the beauties of nature; a general exaltation of emotion over reason and of the senses over intellect. It drifts away from its predecessors such as classicism that idealises calm, harmony, balance, idealisation, and rationality.

Marinist art

The UK as an island nation is part of the reason why I have focused on this painting. Links to the oceans and the worldwide approach as discussed in a previous article makes marine art hugely symbolic. Marine art portrays or draws its main inspiration from the sea and can depict ships, admiralty buildings, dockyards, ports or naval battles etc.

Historically, for policymakers of continental powers resources, land and cultivation of crops could be found or undertaken within their territory. Therefore, there was less need to reach out to the oceans unless it assisted with territorial expansion or trade. This would be reflected in art where for example landscape painting would be a preferred theme over marine art.

Whereas for island nations or sea powers, the need to traverse the oceans was not a choice but a geopolitical reality in which otherwise it would be consumed by its bigger continental neighbour. This reality would be reflected by focusing on marine art and would be more favoured over landscape painting. 

The term ‘Ninth Wave’

The term ‘The Ninth Wave’ carries different meanings in various folklores and mythologies. For example, in the Celtic world, going beyond the ninth wave was said to be a way to access the Otherworld. There are many tales that can be found of watery creatures from the Otherworld interacting with humans along the shorelines, at fountains, and on the banks of a loch or lake.

In this painting, ‘The Ninth Wave’ refers to a traditional nautical belief that the ninth wave is the last, largest and deadliest wave in a series, at which point the cycle begins again. This is reflected in the painting as it portrays a group of people clinging to flotsam from a wrecked ship, amidst a huge wave which is about to engulf the group.

Aivazovsky shows that nature can be strong before man and can be impossible to defeat it. If you hit the depths of the sea, you will not return back. The sunrise peering through the clouds however gives hope that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Ultimately, the viewer determines the fate of the individuals.

Russian national identity

This painting has a Christian allegory; the pleading attitude of the unfortunates clinging, as they look to the rising sun just before the big wave strikes. In the minds of religious Russians of Aivazovsky’s era, the sea was feared as a catastrophic portent linked to the biblical flood. This is reflected in the painting with the ocean mirroring the unknown and therefore being highly dangerous.

This painting helps illustrate how the depiction of the sea is depicted from nation to nation. Nations in close proximity to the ocean would depict oceans more often and more favourably whilst those nations further away treat it with caution. From Russia’s perspective, historically they were a landlocked nation whose main fear was steppe nomads and fire.

Their territorial expansion necessitated the acquisition of a seaport to defend their borders from maritime powers. Thus, Peter the Great’s founding of St. Petersburg on the Baltic sea achieved this goal. However, the old anxieties of steppe nomads and fire were now replaced with the oceans. This was due to the lack of exposure and familiarity with the oceans as well as having to contend with new realities such as the devastating floods of 1824 in St Petersburg which wrecked most of their fleet and undermined shore defences.

Paintings such as the ‘The Ninth Wave’ reflect these fears and also helped bring the ocean into the national consciousness of Russians at the time. The idea of the sea being feared as a catastrophic portent linked to the biblical floods can be further endorsed or challenged. This painting is a fantastic example of how art can be used to show the mindset and mentality of an individual, a community or a nation.

Present day

In current geopolitical terms, Russia is arguably still a continental power with focus primarily on land, resource and military might. Much focus in recent years has been over Russian annexation over Crimea which contains the port of Sevastopol.  The reason for the annexation was a way of countering NATO expansion towards the Russian borders as well as acquiring a major warm-water port which Russia has never fully or indefinitely controlled. Interestingly also, the annexation of Crimea includes the town of Feodosia in which Aivazovsky was born in. Paintings such as ‘The Ninth Wave’ therefore are still relevant as they show the turbulent and often intermittent relationship that Russia still has with the ocean and maritime trade. 

In the long term it shall be interesting to observe how Russia benefits from the annexation of Crimea and from being able to access the Mediterranean. Whether this increases their trade and naval expansion and what restrictions they face is for another article.

Jargon buster:

Ibn Khaldun: 14th century historiographer and historian and author of the Muqaddima (An Introduction to History), the most important study of history ever produced in the Islamic world.

By Yusuf Takoliya


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