Ivan Aivazovsky (1817–1900) was a Russian painter who achieved great fame during his lifetime, being elected into the Academies of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, Rome, Florence, Stuttgart, and Amsterdam. Born into a poor Armenian family in Crimea, as a child Aivazovsky earned an art scholarship to a gymnasium (secondary school) in Simferopol, and then entered into the Academy of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg. Influenced by his childhood home near the Feodosia Bay, his artwork from early on focused on seascapes and maritime scenes, and in the mid-1830s, after winning a gold medal for his works “Still Bay of Finland” and “The Roads Near Kronstadt,” he moved back to Crimea and his beloved Black Sea. In 1839, he joined a Navy expedition, where he witnessed sea battles—which he would later paint to much critical acclaim. For the next few years, he accompanied Russian research and science expeditions throughout Europe, the Americas, and Asia, drawing hundreds of sketches that he would later use to create full works of art. When he returned, he built a workshop near the Feodosia coast and there lived, painting seascapes and experimenting with other subjects, until his death at age eighty-two. He left behind over 6,000 full-sized pieces of art—some of the most famous of which include The Roads Near Kronstadt (1840), Battle of Chesma (1848), The Ninth Wave (1850), A Strong Wind (1856), and, of course, Ships of Columbus (1880).
The Ships of Columbus captures Columbus’s arrival to the New World, but, unlike many of the other painters of the moment, Aivazovsky chose to depict the expedition while it was still at sea. The stillness of the water and the hazy sunlight gives the painting a certain calmness, while the obscured view of the other ships and the rowboat heading for land provides a level of excitement and uncertainty as the explorers approach the unknown.