It’s any sea farer’s worst nightmare: a mounting series of waves, each more destructive than the last, until the one that finally does the ship in.
That large and devastating wave is referred to in legend as the “Ninth Wave,” and Ivan Aivazovsky’s painting by the same name depicts the aftermath of such an event.
Aivazovsky completed The Ninth Wave in 1850, at which point he was already considered one of the world’s most accomplished Marinist painters, and probably the single most accomplished of his sort in Russia.
The Ninth Wave depicts the ravaged aftermath of a terrible shipwreck, where survivors cling to life surrounded by turbulent water. At the bottom of the painting, just left of center, several of the wrecked ship’s crew appear to have climbed atop the mast as a last ditch effort for life. They are soaked and desperate.
Rough, greenish waves can be seen all around the remaining crew, and the horizon of the water blends into the sky to add a sense of confusion and hopelessness. However, before you assume that this crew has no hope for survival, you must turn your attention to the sky itself.
Peeking out from around thick cloud cover, the sun heralds a new day with better chances for survival than could have been expected in the night. The painting elicits a sense of desperation and horror, but tempers that sting with the feeling of hope.
The Ninth Wave also contains more subtle Christian undertones, as the men are clinging to a cross-like structure and are bound to encounter yet another Ninth Wave in only a matter of moments. Still, they are afforded the luxury of sunlight to help give them strength to weather the storm.
Today, the painting can be viewed at The State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg.
For the Love of the Sea
Aivazovsky focused primarily on the sea as his muse. He created prolific work with this subject—around 6,000 paintings to be exact. No doubt fueled by his love for the ocean was his interest in creating a painting that depicted one of its worst phenomena.
Not all of Aivazovsky’s paintings featured sailors in dangerous positions; in fact, not all of his paintings featured humans at all, but perhaps that is where the special poignancy of The Ninth Wave lies. It helps convey the enormity of the sea, and how comparatively inconsequential man is compared with nature’s vast power.
Russia and Romance
Aivazovsky painted in a style known as Russian Romanticism, which was a specific sect of the Romanticism movement. Artists who worked within Romanticism still valued subjective skill, but much less than in previous times. Instead, they believed that a glimpse into a subjective viewpoint could be just as valuable as a wholly accurate rendering of a scene.
In terms of subject, Romanticism varied by region, but did tend to lean heavily on questions about class, struggle, and justice. Painting nature was another common theme in Romanticism, as is evidenced by famous art such as The Ninth Wave.
Alexei Venetsianov was another important figure in Russian Romanticism; he employed similarly dramatic and poignant techniques as Aivazovsky. The overarching theme within this style was the ability to see something, perceive it in a unique way, and convey that personal perception adeptly. Art is a fleeting cultural addition, but nature is constant. Combining the two as Aivazovsky did in The Ninth Wave creates a lasting institution with evergreen relevance.