Family history is an area that seems to fascinate many of us. Where did we come from? Who are our ancestors? What did they do? These questions all seem to form an integral part of our identity.
For Alexis Miller, a first year Masters of Teaching student at UTas, digging into her family history landed her in Russia. There, she and her family represented her great-great-great-great-grandfather, Ivan Aivazovsky — a famous Russian naval painter and Armenian philanthropist — at celebrations of the bicentennial anniversary of his birth. After a flurry of media appearances, lunches with high standing Crimean community members, numerous gallery tours, and memorial services, she has returned to Tasmania with a wider understanding of the life of Ivan Aivazovsky.
Ivan Aivazovsky, born 29 July 1817 in the Crimea, attended the Imperial Academy of the Arts in St Petersburg. Aivazovsky painted over 6,000 paintings in his lifetime, the majority of which were seascapes, but he often painted battles scenes, Armenian themes, and portraiture. He was highly regarded as an artist, leading to the saying “worthy of Aivazovsky’s brush”, emerging as common parlance in Russia to describe beautiful scenes. Aivazovsky was alive during the reign of Tsar Nicholas I. He was involved with the Russian navy as the official naval painter. The most notable war he was appointed to paint was the Crimean war (1853 – 1856). He was placed in a fortress in Sevastopol from which he could view, and paint depictions of naval battles occurring out at sea.
Alexis Miller is Aivazovsky’s granddaughter, four generations removed. Alexis’s great grandmother, Varvara Lampsi Samoilova (Aivazovsky’s great granddaughter) was born in Aivazovsky’s mansion during his life and lived there into her late teens. However, during the October 1917 revolution, the family was forced to leave behind all their property and flee to Turkey. After World War II, Varvara moved to Australia, where her line of the family has lived ever since. Alexis’s father, Andrew Miller, lived with Varvara during his childhood, and had grown up with stories of the famed Ivan Aivazovsky.
The most famous of Aivazovsky’s paintings are spread between galleries in Russia and Armenia. His most famous artwork is called “The 9th Wave,” depicting a group of sailors, whose boat has been sunk, hanging onto a mast as the sun sets.
Alexis and her family saw Aivazovsky’s work in person for the first time during the trip.
“My favourite artwork of Aivazovsky’s is called ‘Among the Waves,’” Alexis said. “It is 4 by 3 metres, and he painted it in only 10 days.”
“He just has a way of painting waves — I feel like I could put my hand in, and it would come away wet,” said Alexis. “It’s just really amazing what he could do with oil paints. Apparently, people used to accuse him of putting lamps behind his paintings to make them glow — he is just that good.”
Alexis and nine other members of her family had timed their trip to coincide with the 200th celebration of Aivazovsky’s birth. As familial representatives of Aivazovsky, they attracted a considerable amount of media attention and excitement.
During the trip, they visited the Tretyakov Gallery, had lunch with the Archbishop of the Armenian Apostolic Church, attended a number of memorial services, toured the Feodosia Aivazovsky Gallery, had lunch with the leaders of the Armenian community, were interviewed by a number of Russian news crews, toured the palaces in Yalta, and toured the Russian museum in St Petersburg.
“The memorial in the Crimea was a big statue of Aivazovsky and his brother, who was an archbishop,” Alexis said. “It was surreal — it had never really hit home for me just how big a deal he is in Russia — especially in the Crimea.”
“Because he was so generous to Theodosia and the Crimea, he has built quite a name for himself. He is very, very big there,” said Alexis. “In Russia, he was the friend of the Tsar, he was quite high up in society, and he was one of their famous painters, so he is quite well known.
“Aivazovsky is a very important person in Crimean history. He was a great painter, but also a great philanthropist, particularly for Feodosia.”
“As the story goes, there once was a historical water shortage in Feodosia, and while he was alive, Aivazovsky would supply the town with his own personal water — gallons and gallons and gallons a day,” said Alexis. “He built fountains, baths, funded archaeological digs, and built the railroad from Moscow to the Crimea.”