The Last Days of Pompeii

Karl Bryullov (1799-1852)

Karl Bryullov was born in the last year of the 18th century in Sankt Petersburg, Russian Empire, as Charles Bruleau. Although a Russian by birth, Bryullov’s artistic mind, which he inherited from his Huguenot academician father, was attracted to Italy and Europe. The young aspiring painter attended the Imperial Academy of Arts for 12 years (1809-1821), after which he left Russia for Rome. He was the key transition figure, Wikipedia dixit, between Russian (or European) neoclassicism and romanticism.

His style evolved over time so much that his more mature paintings resembled little his exuberant work of his youth.

Italian Morning, 1823
Girl, gathering grapes in the vicinity of Naples, 1827
Daughters of Pacini, Giovannina and Amazilia, 1832
Portrait of Sophia Andreevna Bobrinskaya (Shuvalova), 1849

His early works were sunny, luxurious, and happy. These depicted subjects who radiated the joy of life. On the other hand, his late paintings were shaded, overcast, and more reflective of the passage of time, the great equalizer, which renders people mere shadows of their former selves. These did not depict people. Instead, they rendered his work complete. They united the finality of his Omega to the radiance of his Alpha.

His most pregnant painting and the one that marked his entry into the Pantheon of historical masters was the seminal The Last Day of Pompeii, 1833, on display at the Russian Museum, in Sankt Petersburg.

Bryullov’s skill requires the most constant suspension of disbelief. His artful hand has a certain Swiss penchant for detail, which has been lost for the last 150 years and is yet to be recaptured by his modern brethren. His style is reminiscent of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. But Bryullov surpasses his master. He goes beyond the Renaissance man’s infatuation with classical standards, or Michelangelo’s notions of Roman classics. Bryullov enters divine territory when he explores the anguish of pagan denizens of Pompeii, seen by the artist as a form of retribution for their idolatry.

The artist and his paintbox

His hand sublimely contours faces that stare at the inevitability of their demises with a Christian quality, which the Romans sorely lacked: humility. The seventh stage of grief, acceptance, is all but apparent, albeit in different degrees of contrition, on the visages of the three Roman ladies (one matron and her two adolescent daughters). Their mother supplication to an All Knowing, All Powerful Hand, is an homage to motherhood, which the painter skillfully fixes forever in the eye of the beholder. She begs the Lord for forgiveness and she is desperate to save her flesh and blood from His inexorable Fate, which awaits us all, sooner or later.

It is thought that Countess Yuliya Samoylova and her daughters Giovannina and Amazilia were the models for these figures

Fate as directed by the Lord dictates that Pompeii be erradicated by fire and thunder, by telluric forces beyond our realm. The Lord commands that the temple of pagan vice and immorality be destroyed and he, whose name shall not be uttered, instantly obeys. Roman statues, perhaps the sole elements of ancient Latin virtue left in this God forsaken place, tumble to the ground, faceless efigies of God’s righteous wrath.

The Lord takes it upon Himself to decimate – a solid Roman military tradition if there ever was one – the righteous together with the wicked. He acts as the Final Lictor in the Sky in an act, which reminds us that the Good Lord can go Old Testament on our lot.

Statues topple from their pedestals showing the sublime power of nature over man

Bryullov’s apt hand takes unprecedented liberties, for a Romantic painter, with fear. He is most adept at instilling this sentiment in all beings, sentient as well as non-sentient. The great psychologist Ernest Becker had this to say about the human condition in his capital Denial of Death:

“The irony of man’s condition is that the deepest need is to be free of the anxiety of death and annihilation; but it is life itself which awakens it, and so we must shrink from being fully alive.”

If a picture is truly worth 1,000 words, then Bryullov is the one who unleashed this saying’s potential. The horse cowers. The man shrinks from being fully alive. And the centurion is in shock and denial, the first stage of grief. Only the old woman knows that her demise is near. She has made peace with it. For her there is only hope ahead. Her son on the other hand, she urges to flee impending doom, like Pliny’s mother had urged him to do.

The classically modelled bodies of the horseman and the soldier are combined with Romantic depictions of the terror that may be created by the forces of nature in the figures of the old man and the horse

Ernest Becker, reflecting on death, also wrote that “Man cannot endure his own littleness unless he can translate it into meaningfulness on the largest possible level.” Bryullov pulls this off like the master he is. He indubitably forces us to come to grips with the realization that we are little creatures, lucky to survive day by day, in this hostile universe, where our meaningfulness is trumped by our self-delusion.

A mother implores her son to flee as Pliny’s mother had urged him to do

Bryullov pays an excruciating level of attention to detail. His eye captures every single detail of this great tragedy that plays out just like a Greek tragedy would. The artist is all seeing and visualizes action on multiple fronts. In the foreground as well as in the background where the viewer is invited to ponder life’s final jerks.

Stone work and pavements similar to those at Pompeii

A cataclism has never been captured better by the eye of the beholder. Amazingly, in this instance, the beholder lived 1,750 years after the fact. His vivid imagination had to cope with the intransigence of the subject matter. It is thus tat he managed and was able to cast a giant shadow on the blank slate of human memory.

The artist’s biggest contribution to humanity is the legacy of this Memento mori, which will ensure that his art will forever dwell in our souls. We are reminded that a genius is truly immortal.

Like Raphael before him, Bryullov’s expert hand inscribes into our hearts and minds the message, which a slave especially appointed for the task would utter into the ear of triumphant Roman generals at the peak of their glory: Remember you are mortal! All glory fades away! Memento Mori! Sic transit gloria mundi!

The bolting horse and broken chariot lead the viewer deep into the painting where more chaos is occurring
The Last Day of Pompeii alongside Moses and the Brazen Serpent [ru] (1840) by Feodor Bruni at the New Hermitage in 1856 in a watercolour by Edward P. Hau

Nowadays, it seems as though we have abdicated from the divine quest of looking for beauty in all things. Art is meant to convey emotions, which in turn are supposed to move us from our immediate and innocent pleasures to a state of higher self-realization. Modern art is a misnomer, I know, for moderns know nothing about moving people from their primordial state, where carnal pleasures reign supreme, to a state of divinity.

Without art, without music, without beauty we are condemned to a troglodyte existence, barely remembering our past meal and caring only for the next.

Karl Bryullov managed in his relatively short life to create beauty, of the sort poets talk about in their profane and sacred love poems. How many of us are so blessed with the gift of creation? How many of us know how to recognize this gift in time so that they may leave their mark on their age?

Karl Bryullov, self-portrait, oil on cardboard, 1848. Tretiakov Gallery, Moscow

Sic transit gloria mundi, my friends. And above all – caveat emptor! Beware of imitators! For each Bryullov, there’s a myriad cheap copies out there.

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