History of a Painting: 'Last Day of Pompeii' by Karl Bryullov

Karl Briullov, The Last Day of Pompeii (1827–1833)
Karl Briullov, The Last Day of Pompeii (1827–1833) | © WikiCommons
Olga Glioza

The ground is shaking. The sky suddenly darkens as if night has descended on the land. Hundreds of citizens of Pompeii stop in awe and fear, witnessing one of the most legendary natural disasters in human history: the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Russian artist Karl Bryullov managed to convey all the emotions that must have been felt during this disaster in his Last Day of Pompeii painting just as if he witnessed the event himself. We’re taking a closer look at this monumental masterpiece.

In 1822, after finishing his studies at Emperor Academy of Arts in St Petersburg, Karl Bryullov travelled to Italy to spend four years mastering his skills. He ended up staying for 13 years. In 1827 the young artist made a short trip to the recently discovered city of Pompeii. This visit was destined to become the turning point of his career, inspiring the creation of his most famous masterpiece.

Bryullov spent several days in Pompeii walking the newly uncovered streets and imagining how the city looked before the eruption. The feelings that the artist experienced during this trip were so strong he started working on the painting shortly after his visit. He closely studied archaeological and historical sources to make sure his painting was as realistic as possible.

Karl Bryullov, The Last Day of Pompeii (1827–1833)

In this work, Bryullov crosses the borders of classicism and romanticism. Although the composition of the painting follows the classicism rule of using triangles, the whole spirit and content of the painting reflects romanticism. This historical art piece is dedicated not to one hero or specific person, but to the whole nation and to the historical event.

In Last Day of Pompeii, Bryullov used two different sources of light: the dramatic red light from the volcano and the cold greenish light coming from the sky, which adds even more emotional tension to the painting. These bright and deep colors also go beyond the classical tradition, which has led people to call Bryullov a romanticism artist in this case.

On the left side of the painting there is a women staring right at the viewer. Behind her, there is an artist with a box of brushes and paints; this is the self-portrait of Karl Bryullov. By placing himself in the painting, the artist expressed his emotional involvement and sentiment in observing the destruction the volcano caused.

Detail of The Last Day of Pompeii showing the artist, Karl Bryullov

In the right corner of the painting, there is a young man helping his mother to get up and continue their escape. This is Plinius, an actual survivor, who escaped Pompeii in time and shared his experience about the tragic night.

Bryullov worked on his masterpiece for several years. The painting was finished in 1833 and was first shown in Milan, where it became a legend right from its first exhibition. In 1834 it was shown at Paris Salon, and even though France received the painting with less emotion than Italy, Bryullov was given the French Fine Art Academy Award.

After travelling through Europe, the Last Day of Pompeii made it to Russia, where it and Bryullov’s talent were received with respect and admiration. It was shown at Emperor Fine Art Academy as an example for all aspiring artists. Currently, the legendary art piece is on display at the Russian Museum next to other Bryullov masterpieces. You’ll find it opposite another famous painting called ‘The Ninth Wave’ by Aivazovsky.

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