Water is key to the formation of the world and human society. It is one of the four primeval elements from which, people once believed, the whole world was made. Today it separates the earth's continents from each other. The first human settlements were made near water, beside lakes, rivers and sea shores. According to various ancient beliefs, water once drowned the whole world, and then receded to allow humankind to make a fresh beginning.
Water is still used to baptize people into various religions. It is the giver of life and the bringer of death. Without it the human body survives for just two days. It irrigates food crops and yet it may impartially obliterate thousands of people in a single tsunami. Frozen as snow and ice, it vanquishes armies. As fog it can make even brave sea captains fearful.
Water embraces all extremes from limpid tranquillity to cataclysmic violence. It is therefore not surprising then that water has been a pervasive element in art, architecture and landscape design. It has been used to symbolize the source and sustenance of life.
It has served as a representation of nature's mysteries, as a physical barrier and boundary, and as sparkling decoration. Painters have been fascinated with its misty, reflective qualities, and its ability to underline and sometimes represent a whole range of emotions. As marsh and lake, mist and snow, puddle and ocean, waterfall and driving rain, deadly flood and slow moss-banked stream, it has an extraordinary diversity of forms. For these reasons, the representation of water in painting is most frequently as an element of nature.
But this is not exactly always the case because water is also frequently employed in a symbolic way. In Botticelli's 'The Birth of Venus', for example, the iconography of the myth demands that the sea be present because that is where Venus has sprung from - although in terms of composition the sea serves as an almost heraldic background device.
But it is in paintings of nature - landscapes or seascapes - that water is deployed most expressively, whether it is in the glowing landscapes of Claude Lorrain, or in a painting such as Arkhip Kuinji's 'The Birch Grove'. In this, scarcely differentiated from the meadow to each side, the stream is used as a compositional device to lead the viewer's eye into the centre of the painting to create the extraordinary sense of depth which astonished the artist's critics.
In the great range of sea paintings by the prolific Ivan Aivazovskiy, it is significant that he chose the sea as the setting for his almost abstract 'The Creation of the World'. Here a mysterious red magma boils in the middle of an uncertain black cloud on the face of the water's seething vapour, with a febrile sun breaking through the cloud to cast a dim light on the heaving waters. This is God moving on the face of the Deep.
In Isaac Levitan's 'Beginning of the Spring', three forms of water - cloud, river and snow - are (apart from the brown branches recently released from their icy covering) the sole visual components of a painting to do with awakening and, perhaps, regret. And there are, as we shall see, many other variations in the use of water that painters have developed.
Levitan, Kuinji and, in a different way, Aivazovskiy painted water with a peculiarly Russian eye. They are as it happens painters of the second half of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century. One of the reasons Russian paintings of waterscapes and landscapes are of a relatively late date is that from the beginning of the eighteenth century Peter the Great and almost all of his successors in that century forced the Old Russia into a western mindset. Russian art was entirely derivative of European models and at first largely filtered by a Prussian vision, because Peter had brought in masters from Germany to teach aspiring Russian artists the ways of the West. As a result, the nation's artists were encouraged to think of themselves as part of the European mainstream, and were given grants to live, observe and paint abroad for long periods of time. But at the beginning of the nineteenth century, with a new western interest in landscape and landscape painting, Russian artists began to both value and encourage the painting of nature, mountains and water.
At first this was landscape viewed through the filters of a western-trained eye and consisted mostly of idyllic European scenery. But by the end of the century, Russian painting of water and land had become to do with the Russian landscape and identifiably took on a uniquely Russian character.
What was it about Russia itself that focused the attention of so many of its painters on water?
The country has the Pacific Ocean to the far east, and to the west is the Baltic Sea, with its gateway Saint Petersburg and the naval port of Kronstadt. South is the warm Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, with their resorts and trading ports fed by the great, broad waterway of the River Volga, which bisects the country into the East and West Empire. To the north, beyond the great wastes of the Siberian tundra, are the cold seas that form the mostly frozen Arctic Ocean.
Russia is geographically defined by its water in all of its three physical states: vapour, liquid and translucent solid. The brutality, manic depression, melancholy and gloom, which in many ways seem to typify the Russian national character, surely stem from a collective agoraphobia engendered by the country's grim winter climate of rain, mists, fogs, snow and ice. This is of course an oversimplification, for the south of Russia has a relatively equable climate - as the paintings of Aivazovskiy, who spent most of his life in the Crimea, nicely demonstrate. And the spring, summer and autumn could be delightful, as many of the painters of the late nineteenth century discovered.
But people need stereotypes, and the image of Russia held by foreigners and Russians alike has largely been of melancholy, tragedy and callous rawness among those frozen rivers, damp, fog-bound cities and ice-locked seas.
Even before Peter the Great built his new capital on the Neva, Russia's rivers, lakes and seas had formed a crucial transport network for the pastoral and often nomadic Russian people. In the late nineteenth century, Russia was not only a huge country, but still an essentially rural empire in which the boundless forests and plains were crisscrossed by streams, rivers and lakes which were ever mobile. They changed shape and colour as the seasons changed. Indeed there is a Russian Orthodox ceremony known as The Consecration of the Waters at Epiphany. The Volga, one of a group of great continental Russian rivers, is not merely an extremely long and broad waterway. It holds a special place for Russians as a massive artery that feeds the country's very heart, ranging from the wintry extremes of the north to the soft pleasures and seas of the south.
So Levitan, Kuinji, Aivazovskiy, Arkhipov and Repin, to name but a few of the great Russian painters of water, were not only celebrating a major feature of the visible landscape they knew, loved and so obsessively painted but were also celebrating an incredible gamut of emotions and moods. These range from stark terror to peaceful tranquillity, from deep sorrow to exalted musing, and from delightful contentment to uneasy foreboding.