The full title of this painting is Brig “Mercury” Attacked by Two Turkish Ships. It was painted in 1892 by Russian nautical and landscape painter Ivan Aivazovsky, whose work The Tempest I featured in an earlier post. I said there that Aivazovsky was one of the great masters of nautical painting during the 19th century. Here is another example of it. In addition to being a magnificent picture, it’s also a very interesting glimpse into a much-overlooked bit of history.
Aivazovsky did not just make the scene up. This battle actually occurred in May 1829 during a conflict that has come to be known as the Russo-Turkish War of 1828-29. This war, obviously between Russia and the Ottoman Empire, came about as a result of the tumultuous (and failed) Greek war of independence of the 1820s, a war that was heavily romanticized in European thought, especially Britain, and in which Lord Byron offered his services on the Greek side and eventually died of disease. The Russians gave aid to Greek rebels during this war. In response the Turkish Sultan closed the Dardanelles to Russian ships. This war resulted. In May 1829 the Mercury, one of Russia’s prize warships, was ambushed by 14 Turkish ships off the coast of Anatolia. Despite overwhelming odds the Mercury escaped after a pitched battle, and even the Turkish sailors praised the gallantry of her captain and crew. After various other Russian military victories the Turks sued for peace and the war ended by treaty in September 1829.
The battle involving the Mercury came at an interesting time in naval history, as it was one of the last major engagements between pure sailing ships, as steam began to make inroads into naval design in the next few decades.
Aivazovsky’s portrayal of the scene is amazingly beautiful. He painted this scene just eight years before his death. The original is in, fittingly, the Aivazovsky National Art Gallery in the Crimea.