Greeks have lived on the Black Sea coast since classical times, and some from north-eastern Anatolia, a region known as Pontus, migrated to southern Ukraine, where they’re referred to as Pontic Greeks and form a significant minority of the population. Today’s Ukrainian artist, Arkhyp Kuindzhi (1841-1910), also known by his Russified name of Arkhip Ivanovich Kuindzhi, came from a Pontic Greek family who were living in Mariupol on the coast of the Sea of Azov, in the far south-east of Ukraine.
After spending some of his youth in the nearby Russian city of Taganrog, when he was fourteen he travelled to Feodosiia in the east of Crimea, to work and study in the studio of the great marine artist Ivan Aivazovsky, who came from an Armenian family that had settled in Crimea. Although Kuindzhi received little teaching from the master himself, he was influenced by him, and taught mostly by Adolf Fessler, another of Aivazovsky’s pupils.
In 1860, Kuindzhi moved back to Taganrog to work, until he travelled to Saint Petersburg, where he became a student at the Imperial Academy in 1868. There he joined the Wanderers (Peredvizhniki) in 1870, and left the Academy two years later. He met with early success, selling one of his early paintings to the merchant banker Pavel Tretyakov for his collection in Moscow, and in 1874 was awarded a bronze medal in London. Throughout his career he returned to Ukraine to paint its landscapes.
Kuindzhi’s Chumak Road in Mariupol from 1875 shows one of the major activities in this part of the Ukraine at the time, trading using wagons hauled by a pair of oxen. Chumaks had flourished in the seventeenth century, selling and transporting commodities including salt, fish and grain. By the end of the century, competition from the developing railways had put them into decline. The railway from Donetsk to Mariupol was built in 1882, leading to growth in the port of Mariupol and its rapid industrialisation.
Following his influence by Aivazovsky, Kuindzhi soon specialised in painting in spectacular light. After a Thunderstorm (1879) is an oil sketch capturing the brilliant colour and light following heavy rain on the steppe.
He also fell in love with the great River Dnipro (Dnieper), and painted it in a series of views, among them The Dnipro in the Morning from 1881, showing his fine control of detail and aerial perspective.
It’s this nocturne, Moonlit Night on the Dnipro, here seen in one of his copies from 1882, that Kuindzhi is most famous for. Silhouetted against the moonlight reflected from the river is a solitary windmill, and in the foreground are a few cottages.
In 1892, Kuindzhi was appointed a professor at the Imperial Academy, where he taught until being dismissed in 1897 for supporting the protests of students.
Between 1890-95, he painted Midday. Herd on the Steppe, one of his many views with a low horizon and heaped cumulus clouds so typical of summer in this area.
Kuindzhi also painted extensively in Crimea, particularly on its coast. Sea. Crimea from about 1895 shows its rugged cliffs, the perfectly graded blue of the sea, and more cumulus clouds building in the distance.
Landscape in Crimea (1896) is a wonderfully loose view of the rocky cliffs beside a rough Black Sea.
Red Sunset on the Dnipro (1905) is one of few Ukrainian paintings which have made their way beyond Ukraine and Russia: this is in the Met in New York, and is a fine example of Kuindzhi’s paintings of altered light.
His Night from 1905-08 shows horses grazing on the bank of a broad river, quite probably the Dnipro, under the light of a crescent moon.
Another of his favourite themes is the Birch Grove, here in one of his many undated oil sketches.
In 1909, Kuindzhi founded the Society of Artists, which was later named in his honour. He died the following year, 1910, in Saint Petersburg.
The Ukrainian city of Mariupol opened the Kuindzhi Art Museum in 2010, where three of his works were on display, together with those of other Ukrainian artists. On 21 March 2022, the museum was destroyed by Russian munitions. Although his paintings were elsewhere at the time, the museum and all his papers and records are believed to have been completely lost as a result.
Andrey Kurkov and others (2022) Treasures of Ukraine, A Nation’s Cultural Heritage, Thames & Hudson. ISBN 978 0 500 02603 8.
Konstantin Akinsha and others (2022) In the Eye of the Storm, Modernism in Ukraine 1900-1930s, Thames & Hudson. ISBN 978 0 500 29715 5.