The harsh winter of 1891-1892 brought with it one of the most serious famines that Russia would ever face. Terrible droughts resulted in unsuccessful harvests, which were in turn downplayed by Tsar Alexander III, who continued to permit crop exportation despite the suggestions of his advisors. As harsh weather bore down on the countryside, hundreds of thousands of peasants were suffering from starvation and plague.
Word of the tragedy quickly reached America, where crop yields had been particularly abundant in 1891. However, congressional debates prevented an immediate and unified response to Russia's needs. Whereas the American public felt largely sympathetic to the situation in Russia, politicians were divided over an appropriate course of action, especially since they believed that moral tenets of American democracy were distinctly opposed to the so-called despotism of the Russian Empire. Further arguments arose when discussing how to transport the food, as the Navy declared it had no ships to spare, and many Congressmen were unwilling to offer the funds necessary to contract private ships.
W.C. Edgar, editor of The Northwestern Miller, learned early of the situation, and he took to writing public letters about it in his trade journal. Realizing the improbability of an official American response, he sought to organize an independent one, asking farmers across America to donate their surpluses to the cause. Progress was initially slow, especially as the media suggested that the situation was over-dramatized; yet American farmers managed to amass more than one million pounds of grain in donations. At last shipping companies were found to provide free transportation, and one vessel departed for Russia on Washington's birthday. A second vessel left on March 12, this one accompanied by Edgar, who followed the supplies to St. Petersburg. Four other boats eventually made the trip.
Upon arrival, Edgar was confused by what he saw; though the weather was cold, life appeared to carry on as if nothing were wrong. For the most part, the nobility seemed unaffected by the famine. Edgar was somewhat disheartened, though he was promised that many of the wealthy elite—Lev Tolstoy included—were volunteering to help peasants throughout the countryside, and that serious efforts were being made to alleviate the situation.
Traveling onward, Edgar soon came to find conditions were, if anything, more desperate than he anticipated, though the Russian people had already endured the worst of it. Relief supplies were welcomed with great thanks and celebration—fireworks were launched at ports where ships docked, and streets were lined with cheering crowds of hungry and thankful people. It is estimated that tens of thousands of Russian peasants would not have survived the winter and spring of 1892 if not for American support.
In 1893, the Russian Tsar sent two warships to New York and Philadelphia as a ceremonial gesture of thanks. They arrived with messages and gifts of silver for those who had directly participated in the relief effort. A well-known Russian seascape artist also traversed to the United States to offer thanks; he arrived with two paintings that depicted his own observations of the Americans' arrival in Russia in 1892.
On January 9, 1893, Ivan Aivazovsky presented these two paintings—The Relief Ship and Distributing Supplies—as a gift to the Corcoran Gallery in Washington D.C., which was then widely considered the equivalent of a national museum. He wrote:
I personally desire to present to the Corcoran Gallery of Art at the national capital of this United States of America two of my paintings, hoping to express the hearty appreciation of the people of my country for the generous and timely assistance rendered by the United States government during the recent famine in Russia.
I. Aivasovsky, Professor of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, Russia
Some seventy years later, Russo-American relations were again strained, and the memory of the 1892 rescue mission had long been forgotten. American President John F. Kennedy and Russian President Nikita Kruschev were entering into the most intense period of the Cold War, and many believed that a nuclear war was inevitable. At this very time, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy engaged in a significant gesture of "quiet diplomacy."
Having been asked by the President to redecorate the White House Fish Room, a room often used for press conferences and meetings with foreign diplomats, Mrs. Kennedy recalled two paintings that were on display in the Corcoran Gallery. She soon negotiated to loan these paintings—the present works by Aivazovsky—and they were transported to the White House. There they hung as the backdrop to some of the tensest and most important conversations Russia and America have ever held together. They remained there through the resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and through John F. Kennedy's assassination in November 1963.
Today these works remain a symbol of more than a century of international relations between Russia and America. They serve as a reminder of both conflict and alliance, as well as a deeper sense of humanitarian kinship that exists without regard for political agenda.
In Distributing Supplies, Aivazovsky depicts the delivery of provisions to his birthplace of Feodosiya, a port city on the Black Sea. The active composition suggests the monumentality of Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People or Gericault's Raft of the Medusa, two of the most important and radical pictures of the early nineteenth century. The supplies arrive on a troika, a sled drawn by three horses, which charges epically down a street lined with starving and grateful peasants. The peasants fade into the hazy background, possibly the artist's evocation of the bleak and frigid environment, while the horses appear equally unfocused, indicating the urgent speed at which they are galloping. Aivazovsky depicts the American flag with veneration, placing it at the foreground at center right, held in the hands of a Russian peasant upon the troika. The many diagonals of the composition lead the viewer's eye to this distinct symbol.
As a resident and native of Theodosia, Aivazovsky felt personally committed to the well-being of its people. In 1892 he donated seventeen paintings and thirty two watercolors as lottery prizes in a fundraiser for famine victims, not to mention the present paintings that he later gifted to the Corcoran Gallery. Aivazovsky also managed to develop an art school and a gallery in Feodosiya, and he supplied the town with water from his estate. During the last decade of his life, he successfully lobbied to establish Theodosia as a major commercial port, which was then linked with the railway system, improving commerce and quality of life for the entire local population.
The Relief Ship illustrates the celebrated arrival of an American ship at a Russian port, previously identified as either Sevastopol, once the primary base for the Russian navy on the Black Sea, or Riga, a plausible match only because of the remarkable architecture that comprises the skyline. However, a closer look reveals distinctive features that comprise the majestic St. Petersburg skyline as seen from the Neva. Aivazovsky's Petersburg. Passage across the Neva (1870s) undeniably links the golden spires to those of the Admiralty and Peter and Paul Fortress, and the dome at right is unmistakably that of St. Isaac's Cathedral.
Thus in The Relief Ship, Aivazovsky illustrates what may be W.C. Edgar's arrival to Petersburg in the spring of 1892, and he depicts the approaching steamship with two flags—the Russian Navy flag and the American Stars and Stripes—as a gesture of Russo-American solidarity. Several rowboats set outward to greet the ship, and Aivazovsky captures a poignant moment when the passengers stand, raise their caps and cheer in celebration. Even as the artist commemorates this moment and paints the ship so that its size dwarfs the Petersburg skyline, he still paints the ship in small scale within the overall composition, thereby evoking a cold and quiet atmosphere in which the city and all the boats are dwarfed by the powers of nature.
Аccording to materials of http://www.sothebys.com.