Karl Pavlovich Briullov: The Last Day of Pompeii (1830-1833)

Oil on canvas, 456,5 x 651 cm. The Russian Museum, St. Petersburg.


Briullov: The Last Day of Pompeii

Karl Pavlovich Briullov, a “Russian painter, portraitist, genrist,” was born in 1799, at the end of neoclassical period in Russia. Despite his education at the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts, Briullov did not welcome the idea of the return to classicism and, like many other artists, he refused to submit completely to the Academy’s canon. After establishing himself as a promising and talented student, Briullov traveled to Rome, where he worked as a portraitist and a genre painter, until he got involved in historical painting. His most famous work, The Last Day of Pompeii, was warmly accepted by the public, making him overnight one of the best known painters of his time (RussianPaintings.neti), and a “dictator in Russian Art” (Lord 214).

“Soon after finishing The Last Day of Pompeii, [Briullov] returned to Russia, where he was joyously received. While teaching at the Academy (1836-1848), he continued his own artistic efforts, but was unable to produce a work comparable to his ‘masterpiece’" (RussianPaintings.net). His realistic portraits, combining “a neoclassical simplicity with a romantic tendency that fused well,” are more successful. “A transitional figure between Russian neoclassicism and romanticism, [Briullov] may be considered the first Russian artist of international fame” (RussianPaintings.net).

“[Briullov’s] masterpiece captivated the art world of Europe in the 1830s, winning the Grand Prix at the Paris Salon of 1834. Arriving in Petersburg in August 1834, it drew large crowds of viewers, including Nikolai Gogol. The painting’s massive size (approximately 15’ X 21’) and popular [classical historical] subject (the destruction of Pompeii, whose ruins had recently been discovered) made it one of the most famous examples of the ‘high’ genre of historical painting. It depicted a cross-section of Pompeii’s citizenry reacting variously to the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D. Illuminated by flames from the volcano and lightning in the heavens, they either flee, cower, shield themselves from the flying rocks, or look on in horror and wonder” (Robey 237).

“Purely academic in treatment, [The Last Day of Pompeii] was introduced to the public under the banner of Romanticism, and for the first time in Russia the success of a painting became a social event. The Last Day of Pompeii was abundant with life . . . the movement of figures, the effects of light and the expression of terror and despair in [Briullov’s] picture produced . . . [a] deep . . . impression upon the Russian public” (Miliukov 55). The painting owes its success in part to the composition and its “effects of a stage performance” (Miliukov 56), displaying simultaneously several stories, thousands of emotions and drama of the chaos.

On the other hand, “Russian painting for the first time had dared to portray reality as honestly and as plainly as it was described in literature by Gogol” (Miliukov 58). Not only Gogol devoted a whole essay to the topic of Briullov’s painting, but also Pushkin wrote a poem about it. Apparently, the interest of Russian intellectuals in the masterpiece was great, which shows the tremendous significance of this epic painting for the Russian culture. Gogol speaks about the amazing realistic effects of the painting, “Everything that was secret in the depths of nature, her entire silent language, was noted, or perhaps it would be better to say it was stolen, ripped out of nature itself, although the theft took place bit by bit” (Gogol).

The subject matter itself, apart from being a classical historical topic (neoclassical qualities), is the wrath of nature – volcano eruption. This subject gives the painting a romantic quality, because during the romantic period people were impressed by the power of nature and their lack of understanding or control over it. We see how nature’s blow destroys the fragile human constructions, and humans themselves. We see powerful drama, a kaleidoscope of human emotions: people's strengths and weaknesses. We see people running scared; the whole set and the mood of the painting reminds me of the Greek tragedies, which are supposed to evoke pity and fear in the viewer. This connection with the classical literature and ideas of romanticism put the painting on the verge between neoclassicism and romanticism.

I must say that I saw the original painting several times in the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg. This is my favorite painting of all times. The painting is huge and occupies a whole wall in the museum. I agree with Walter Scott, who “gave it the seal of his approbation when, having contemplated it in silence for over an hour, he proclaimed it an epic” (Rice 54). I never spent less than an hour in front of it myself. The small reproductions that we can find in books or on the web will not impress a person who never saw the original painting.

The difference between the reproduction and the original is the same as the difference between a television screen and a movie theater screen – from the reproduction one can get the general sense and idea of the painting, but only by seeing the original one can actually feel like being in the painting as in real life. The size of The Last Day of Pompeii is the key element of its splendor and magic. Looking at a reproduction, many critics find the painting “dull and uninspiring” (Rice 54) or it is difficult for them “to see in the painting anything to justify [the] enthusiasm” (Lord 214). I strongly disagree with these critics, because, having seen the canvas several times, I declare that it is as alive as life itself. The size of the figures only adds to the painting’s realistic qualities.

The whole action in the painting strikingly resembles a theatrical stage. The figures are carefully positioned in groups; accurately drawn bodies of the characters resemble the ones of the classic sculpture. The painting, just like sculpture, shows the figures and the action frozen in a single moment, yet this moment seems to last for eternity. Despite being captured and frozen, the scene is very dynamic with people and animals running and struggling. The dramatic effect is achieved not only through the show of a number of emotions, but also by strong chiaroscuro and “a whole sea of highlights” (Gogol). The colors are dynamic too – Briullov uses a powerful red and black for the background, as well as yellow, gold, blue, green. The brushstroke is very accurate even for such a large painting; the paint is applied thinly and gives a light and flowing effect to the fabrics. As a source of light, Briullov uses the strong lightning, which hits the center of the painting, where we see a dead woman. All these elements symbolize destruction -- the ultimate fate of the people of Pompeii.

Through the characters Briullov shows genuine humanity; he shows a tragedy that affected everybody, from a priest to a prostitute. “A proud athlete lets out a cry of horror, pride, and impotence, protecting himself with his cloak from the whirlwind of flying stones . . . here is a child whose gaze pierces the viewer’s heart; here, being carried by children, is an old man whose terrible body already has the breath of the grave on it” (Gogol). We see a mother, protecting her two daughters in the anticipation of a destructive blow; a family with young children trying to escape in vain; a rider, unable to manage his horse; and people struck by the falling buildings.

“The crowd recoils in horror from the buildings and gazes in the wild oblivion of terror at the fearsome phenomenon marking the end of the world; a priest shrouded in white looks with fierce hopelessness at the whole world. All of this has been rendered so powerfully, so boldly, and has been composed so harmoniously that it could only have come from the mind of a universal genius” (Gogol). We can even see Briullov himself, with his paints and brushes. “Briullov’s figures are beautiful despite all the horror of their position. Their beauty masks that horror” (Gogol).

At the same time, not only people tell the story. The artist uses a few symbols to show the situation. Falling classical statues of gods, temples and buildings represent the weakness and fragility of humans and their creations. In the foreground, we see abandoned jewels and keys – perhaps a symbol of hopelessness of the situation, since we cannot take our riches and property with us to the grave. “But for Briullov, on the other hand, all objects from the greatest to the smallest are precious” (Gogol). One of the most important things about the painting is that it is “accessible to all, from the least to the greatest . . . because of [its] liveliness and the faithful mirror that [it] hold[s] up to nature” (Gogol).

Before he began to paint his masterpiece, Briullov made meticulous preparations, “which included studying documents and visiting the newest excavations at Pompeii, then choosing as the setting an actual street uncovered in the excavations- Strada dei Sepderi [Sepulcher Street]” (Robey 237). After his arrival in Florence, Briullov “attended a performance of Pacini’s opera, The Last Day of Pompeii. The work enthralled him and, on reading Pliny’s account of the disaster, the young painter set to work on an immense canvas devoted to the same subject” (Rice 54). As I mentioned earlier, Pompeii has also a lot in common with classical literature. All of these preparations resulted in what Gogol calls “one of the most brilliant phenomena of the nineteenth century.” The relationship of the painting with literature, history, drama, poetry, and music is what makes it an epic -- “a complete, universal creation. Everything is contained within it” (Gogol). Finally, this “extraordinary scope and combination of all that is beautiful” (Gogol) is what makes The Last Day of Pompeii a masterpiece.[N.V.].

[Sources: Rice, Gogol, Lord, Miliukov, RussianPaintings, Robey].


© Alexander Boguslawski 1998-2000