Description & Technical information

Unloading boats on the Bosphorus provides a momentary glimpse into the dockside activities in nineteenth century Istanbul. The left foreground is dominated by a brightly sunlit jetty packed with people working, resting and unloading small vessels. A rowboat filled with colourful wares, ready for unloading, waits in front of the jetty whilst two men engage in conversation between the boat and dock. The mast of a larger boat is seen looming behind the lively quay, though Konstantin Egorovich Makovsky has insinuated its presence by merely leaving the area unpainted, suggesting the shape of rigging.

Behind the jetty, the magnificent silhouette of the Hagia Sophia mosque dominates the background, her four minarets piercing the bright sky above. Makovsky evocatively depicts the illuminated sky with bursts of hazy light flowing down towards the shadow-veiled city below, whilst the still water glistens with the long rays that glide across the surface. The Bosphorus appears unusually devoid of maritime activity and along the shoreline one can see the contours of several large ships at anchor. The palette used by Makovsky is highly contrasted, with the quay activities depicted using vibrant reds, blues and yellows, and Istanbul shrouded in a pale shadowy blue. This differing use of colour and tone by Makovsky heightens the mystic aura of the Byzantine city, and accentuates the sunbathed skyline as well as the vibrant day-to-day activities at the dockside.

Makovsky was part of an influential Russian dynasty of painters. His father, Yegor Ivanovich Makovsky (1800-1886), was an amateur artist and founder of Art Classes, which later become incorporated into the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture. His father’s important artistic connections meant that renowned contemporary Russian painters such as Karl Pavlovich Bryullov and Vasily Tropinin (1776-1857) were counted as friends of the family. All of Yegor Ivanovich Makovsky’s children were to become artists, and Konstantin’s brother Vladimir is equally regarded for his artistic abilities. Later on in his life Konstantin mused that, 'for what I became I think I should thank not the Academy or Professors but only my father.'

Makovsky studied first at the Moscow School of Painting and Sculpture from 1851 until 1858 under Mikhail Ivanovich Skotti (1814-61) and Sergey Konstantinovich Zaryanko (1818-1871), both of whom were pupils of Bryullov. From 1858 to 1863 he continued his studies at the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts, exhibiting paintings such as The Curing of the Blind (1860) and Agents of the False Dmitry Kill the Son of Boris Godunov (1862). In 1862 he was awarded a Minor Gold Medal, but the following year, together with thirteen other students, Makovsky rebelled against the theme set for the Grand Gold Medal competition and left the Academy with the title of Artist of the Second Degree.

These dissenting students, headed by Ivan Kramskoy (1837-1887), broke away from the Academy in protest against its traditional style and subject-matter, wanting instead to focus on Russian culture and subsequently forming the Petersburg Artel of Artists in 1863. This group would later become the Society for Travelling Art Exhibitions, commonly known as ‘The Wanderers’. As a member of the Wanderers, Makovsky was most notable for his focus on new subject-matter, namely the common people. However, he split with the society in 1883 and by 1891 had become a member of the newly established and more Salon-orientated St. Petersburg Society of Artists, of which he later became president. He is often considered a representative of Salon art, and his inclination towards Romanticism is attributed to the influence of Bryullov in his formative years.

Makovsky travelled to Egypt and Serbia in the mid-1870s, and at that time there occured a noticeable shift in his interests, from social and psychological subject-matter to the artistic problems of colours and shape. It is highly probable that Makovsky conceived Unloading Boats on the Bosphorus either during or after this period of travel.

Period:  1850-1900, 19th century, 20th century
Origin:  Russia
Medium: Watercolour on paper, Laid down on board
Dimensions: 17.2 x 23.2 cm (6³/₄ x 9¹/₈ inches)
Provenance: Collection of the granddaughter of the artist;
anonymous sale, Sotheby's, London, 20th November, 2001, lot 22.
Categories: Paintings, Drawings & Prints