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Karl Bryullov and his "The Last Day of Pompeii"
Karl Bryullov and his "The Last Day of Pompeii"

The last day of the ancient city was the first in Karl Bryullov's career. The artist made Europe applaud the Russian painting genius.


On the canvas is one of the most powerful volcanic eruptions in the history of mankind. In 79, Vesuvius, who had been silent for so long that he had long been considered extinct, suddenly "woke up" and made all living things in the area fall asleep forever.

"The last day of Pompeii"

It is known that Bryullov read the memoirs of Pliny the Younger, who witnessed the events in Misena, who survived the disaster: “The panic-ridden crowd followed us and … pressed on us in a dense mass, moving forward when we left … We froze among the most dangerous and terrifying scenes.

The chariots, which we dared to take out, shook so violently back and forth, although they stood on the ground that we could not hold them even with large stones under the wheels. The sea seemed to roll back and was pulled away from the shores by the convulsive movements of the Earth; certainly the land has expanded considerably, and some sea animals have ended up on the sand …

Finally, the terrible darkness began to dissipate little by little, like a cloud of smoke; daylight reappeared, and even the sun came out, although its light was gloomy, as happens before an approaching eclipse. Every object that appeared before our eyes (which were extremely weak) seemed to have changed, covered with a thick layer of ash, as if snow."

Pompeii today

The devastating blow to the cities occurred 18-20 hours after the eruption began - people had enough time to escape. However, not everyone was prudent, mostly those who planned to wait out the elements at home died.

On Bryullov's canvas, people are in a panic, the elements will not spare either the rich or the poor. And what is remarkable - for writing people of different classes, the author used one model. We are talking about Yulia Samoilova, her face appears on the canvas four times: a woman with a jug on her head on the left side of the canvas; the woman who crashed to death in the center; a mother attracting daughters to her, in the left corner; a woman who covers children and rescues them with her husband. The artist was looking for faces for the rest of the heroes on the Roman streets.

Amazing in this picture and how the issue of light is resolved. “An ordinary artist, of course, would not fail to take advantage of the eruption of Vesuvius to illuminate his picture with it; but Mr. Bryullov neglected this means. The genius instilled in him a bold idea, as happy as it was inimitable: to illuminate the entire front part of the picture with a quick, momentary and whitish gleam of lightning, cutting through a thick cloud of ash that encircled the city, while the light from the eruption, with difficulty making its way through the deep darkness, throws reddish penumbra in the background,”they wrote in the newspapers at the time.


By the time Bryullov decided to write the death of Pompeii, he was considered talented, but only promising. Serious work was needed to become a master.

At that time in Italy, the theme of Pompeii was popular. Firstly, excavations were very active, and secondly, there were a couple more eruptions of Vesuvius. On the stages of many Italian theaters, Paccini's opera L'Ultimo giorno di Pompeia, that is, The Last Day of Pompeii, was successfully performed. Most likely, the artist saw her.


The idea to paint the death of the city came in Pompeii itself, which Bryullov visited in 1827 at the initiative of his brother, the architect Alexander. It took 6 years to collect the material. The artist was scrupulous about the details. So, things that fell out of the box, jewelry and other various objects in the picture were copied from those that were found by archaeologists during excavations.

Let's say a few words about Yulia Samoilova, whose face, as mentioned above, is found four times on the canvas. For the painting, Bryullov was looking for Italian types.And although Samoilova was Russian, her appearance corresponded to Bryullov's ideas about how Italian women should look.

Portrait of Yu

They met in Italy in 1827. Bryullov there adopted the experience of senior masters and looked for inspiration, and Samoilova burned through life. In Russia, she had already managed to get a divorce, she had no children, and for an overly stormy bohemian life, Nicholas I asked her to go away from the yard.

When work on the painting was completed and the Italian public saw the canvas, a boom began on Bryullov. It was a success! Everyone considered it an honor to say hello when meeting an artist; when he appeared in theaters, everyone stood up, and at the door of the house where he lived, or the restaurant where he dined, many people always gathered to greet him. Since the Renaissance itself, no artist in Italy was the object of such worship as Karl Bryullov.

At home, the painter was also in for a triumph. The general euphoria about the picture becomes clear after reading Baratynsky's lines:

He brought peace trophies

With you in the fatherly shade.

And there was "The Last Day of Pompeii"

For the Russian brush, the first day.

The fate of the author

Karl Bryullov spent half of his conscious creative life in Europe. For the first time he went abroad after graduating from the Imperial Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg. Once in Italy, Bryullov initially painted mainly Italian aristocrats, as well as watercolors with scenes from life. The latter have become a very popular souvenir from Italy.

These were small-sized pictures with low-figured compositions, without psychological portraits. Such watercolors mainly glorified Italy with its beautiful nature and represented Italians as a people who genetically preserved the ancient beauty of their ancestors.

Interrupted Date, 1827

Bryullov worked simultaneously with Delacroix and Ingres. It was a time when the theme of the fate of huge human masses came to the fore in painting. Therefore, it is not surprising that for his program canvas Bryullov chose the story of the death of Pompeii.

The painting made such a strong impression on Nicholas I that he demanded that Bryullov return to his homeland and take the place of professor at the Imperial Academy of Arts. Returning to Russia, Bryullov met and made friends with Pushkin, Glinka, Krylov.

Frescoes by Bryullov in St. Isaac's Cathedral

The artist spent his last years in Italy, trying to save his health, undermined during the painting of St. Isaac's Cathedral. Hours of long hard work in the damp unfinished cathedral had a bad effect on the heart and aggravated rheumatism.

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