The Great Karl, he was called by his contemporaries. His masterpiece, The Last Day of Pompeii, an enormous composition painted in Italy in 1830—1833, was a real triumph. Italian critics compared Bryullov to the greatest artists of the past, such as Rubens, Rembrandt, and Van Dyke. At the age of thirty three, Bryullov gained European fame.
Karl Bryullov was born in 1799 inSt. Petersburg. Painting was the metier of the family: Bryullov’s father, grand-father, and great grand-father were painters; Bryullov’s brothers, too, were educated at the Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg.
Bryullov studied at the Academy from 1809 to 1821. Unusually gifted, he soon surpassed other students. The system of education at the Academy of St. Petersburg, like in most European Academies, was based on the principles of Classicism, a rationalistic trend relying on rigid artistic canons. Yet, even before graduation from the Academy, in 1819, Bryullov executed his Narcissus, a painting that somehow deviates from the rules of Classicism. Though mythological in its subject matter, the picture is, at the same time, a product of the author’s classical education and his every-day experience, which manifested itself in the treatment of the main participant and, above all, in the landscape.
In 1821, Bryullov graduated with honours. He received the 1st degree diploma and the First Gold Medal. Since his early years Bryullov sought independence, therefore he discontinued his education, refusing to take a two years’ course of post-graduate studies free of charge, which many would have found attractive. But Bryullov, attracted by painting from life, preferred to work on his own and, leaving the Academy, he eagerly turned to portraiture, a genre that the Academy regarded inferior to historical painting. In the portraits of his friends, never commissioned, Bryullov attempted to follow the tracks of the great Russian master of the romantic portrait, Orest Kiprensky. Thus he first associated himself with the ideas of Romanticism, a trend that grew out of Classicism and by Bryullov’s time had gained firm ground in Russian literature, where its chief exponents were Alexander Pushkin, Vasily Zhukovsky, and the authors of the Decembrists’ circle.
In 1821, the first Russian philanthropic organization, Society for the Promotion of Artists, was established. Karl Bryullov and his brother Alexander, who had graduated from the Department of Architecture of the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts, were the first pensioners of the Society which subsidized their trip to Italy to complete their artistic training.
In the summer of 1822, Bryullov brothers started for Italy. The journey took them almost a year; on the way they spent much time studying contemporary European art and architecture and visiting museums. At first they stood aloof from everything that did not comply with the aesthetics of Classicism, be it Italian primitives, Correggio, Durer, Holbein, or works by the painters of the contemporary German Romanicism. But little by little they began to appreciate works of the schools other than those of Classicism. After this journey Karl Bryullov came closer to the principles of Romanticism that dominated European painting of the time.
In Rome Bryullov got immersed in work, studying the art of ancient Italy, copying from the antique in the museums, and making a lot of drawings in the streets of the EternalCity. There he started several mythological and religious compositions, classical in the manner and subject matter. At the same time, he painted portraits, both ceremonial and more intimate ones, and began an extensive series of genre scenes from every-day Roman life. The genre and portraiture were gradually to dominate over classical works and finally to replace them almost completely. The most important among the genre paintings of the period is the Midday (1827). The picture is remarkable in, at least, two respects. The woman portrayed has nothing in common with classical models; she is not very young and rather thickset. What is more important, however, the idea of the picture is not confined to its subject, gathering grapes. The painting has a deeper meaning, i.e. the height of the day and that of the human life, both personified in the image of a woman in the prime of her life. The idea of comparing the stages of life and the seasons or the parts of the day attracted many romantic painters of the time, both Russian and Western European. Bryullov’s Midday reveals his deep faith in the ways of nature. The woman in the picture is fascinating in her mature beauty, vitality, and joyous lust for life. Her beauty is akin to the splendour of the bunch of grapes she is holding in the admiring hands. The middle of the day as the height in the life of nature and harvesting time as the prime of human life are the essence of the symbolic image created by Bryullov.
Of the representational portraits painted in Italy the most remarkable is truly that of Countess Yulia Samoilova with her foster child Giovanina Pacini and a blackamoor boy. Compositionally it is a brilliant example of a picture-portrait. Besides, it betrays a connotation resulting from Bryullov’s personal attitude towards the model, who was his friend and the only woman he loved. The spectator is made to share the author’s admiration. The theme is a very simple one: Samoilova entering the drawing room of her house after a promenade. But the event, though ordinary, is depicted in a very imposing manner: the woman does not simply enter the room, she appears to the spectator, beautiful charming, graceful, and independent. In this picture Bryullov demonstrated his ability of a colourist, since it is through the colours that the loftiness of the subject matter manifests itself most prominently. The dominating colour is red. By using an amazingly rich variety of its gradations, the artist has created a whole symphony of tones from which Samoilova seems to have emerged, her dress of sky blue silk harmonious with the blue of the sky seen in the end of the suite of rooms.
In Italy Bryullov produced some 120 portraits in various techniques. Among them are the portraits of the Russians residing in Italy, painters, sculptors, writers, and aristocracy, e.g. the family of the Russian envoy Prince Gagarin, Yulia Samoilova, Princess Z. Volkonskaya, Bryullov’s brother Alexander, and also Italian authors and statesmen, F. Guerazzi and G. Capecalatro, singers D. Pasta and F. Persiani, sculptor C. Baruzzi and many others. Though different in characters, the portraits have a lot in common. They all show people at a moment of highest spiritual elevation. Such instances in life, otherwise monotonous, reveal the creative element that Bryullov strove to seize and depict never showing his models in a state of melancholy. In this way, the most essential feature of Bryullov’s attitude to life at the time shows itself. Bryullov’s greatest achievements in those years were the portraits of G. Gagarin, A. Lvov, his brother Alexander, and a series of self-portraits. Some of the self-portraits were commissioned by the Uffizi Gallery. One of the most characteristic features of Romanticism was its concern with a free and creative individuality, which accounts for the flourishing of portraiture and the self-portrait in European art. Almost all the Romanticists left their self-portraits.
Bryullov’s self-portraits reveal various facets of his soul and mind, various emotional states the painter experienced. In the self-portrait of 1834, the most perfect technically, Bryullov shows himself somewhat detached from the vanity of life. In its tranquil solemnity the picture is parallel to the classicist self-portraits, e.g. those of David or Ingres. Somewhat different is the self-portrait in the Tittoni collection in Rome. In spite of the absence of any attributes of profession, it is clear that the person in the picture is a painter, his gaze, both impulsive and inquisitive, betraying a thinker and creator. Here we can see one of the principles of Romanticist aesthetics at work, namely, its striving to re-create national colouring in depicting man and nature. This self-portrait, when compared with those of some European Romanticists, shows the impact of both the national character and traditions of Russian art of portraiture. In the self-portrait of Gericault (about 1823), tragic loneliness and alienation are dominating motifs. This, as well as mystic introversion as if deriving from E.T.A.Hoffmann’s novels, characterizes the self-portrait of Caspar David Friedrich of Germany. Compared with these two masterpieces, Bryullov’s self-portrait is more gentle and lyrical. Here Bryullov does not oppose the artist and his surroundings, either people or nature.
In 1827, Bryullov, for the first time, visited the excavation site of Pompeii, a town destroyed and buried in hot lava during an eruption of Mount Vesuvius on August 24, 79 A. D. The sight astounded Bryullov. The town preserved under the layer of lava revealed life that was suddenly interrupted. Six years were to pass between the plan of the picture and its materialization. It was not until 1833 that the doors of Bryullov’s Italian Studio opened to show the public the huge canvas, The Last Day of Pompeii.
Years of his previous work had prepared Bryullov to painting a historical picture. From 1824 to 1828, he was copying the School of Athens, an immense fresco by Raphael, one of his favourite artists. Everything in the fresco appealed to Bryullov, its spontaneity combined with a grandiose style and naturalness of the lighting, in a word, “the life of the picture as a whole.” As he pointed out, the fresco “has almost all components of painting, composition, nexus, conversation, action, expression, and the contrast of characters …” To him the copying of the fresco became a school of monumental painting. As he admitted later on, it was only because of the “school” of the School of Athens that he had the courage to undertake paintings so huge a canvas.
After the first sketches had been done, mainly from imagination, Bryullov began studying the materials of the excavations and historical documents, such as the letters of Pliny the Younger, who was an eye-witness of the event, to Tacitus. Loyal to the Romantic principle of historical truth, Bryullov, in the many sketches done for the painting, tried to find the most genuine composition, varying the arrangement of the groups and the number of participants. Simultaneously, he worked with sitters striving to achieve the naturalness of gestures and facial expressions.
In the picture, the day is tragically somber, exactly like it is described by Pliny. Darkness lay close upon the earth; blood-red glow covered the sky; long pointed flashes of lightning pierced the darkness. The earth was shaking; the crashing of buildings, cries, moans, and prayers were heard. And like on Doom’s Day human vices and virtues are brought to surface at the moment of death. Each group is a portrayal of a particular human quality: the thief stealing jewelery personifies covetousness; the family trying to flee from the disaster embody fright and panic. The kneeling mother and daughter are motionless in a position of prayer, so strong is their faith in God’s mercy. Above them is the Christian priest who knows neither fear nor doubt. The heathen priest, a little farther off, fleeing with an altar under his arm, is a naive allegory of the advantage of Christianity over heathendom. To Bryullov the destruction of Pompeii was a symbol of the fall of the Antiquity; the central scene of the painting, the woman who fell down and died, represents the beautiful and doomed civilization.
Almost every character in the picture personifies the lofty feelings of self-denial, courage, and love: the sons carrying their old father on their backs; the young man, who forgot of the danger, with his fiancee in his arms; Pliny pursuading his mother to pull herself together and follow him. Bryullov depicted himself as the painter witnessing the tragedy, which was to emphasize the authenticity of the event and, at the same time, to show the artist’s involvement with the act of life. Bryullov’s emphasis is on the moral perfection of his heroes rather than their physical beauty and fitness. This, to a great extent, accounts for the stupendous success the painting had in Italy. In the roaring years of the Risorgimento movement for the liberation and political unification of Italy many of Italian painters and writers turned to their country’s past glorifying the great deeds of the ancestors in order to give their contemporaries an example of courage and devotion. The Russian artist, who was on friendly terms with many of the participants in the Risorgimento and painted portraits of some of them, was able to apprehend the aspirations of the Italian society. Turning to an event of historic past Bryullov did not depict battle achievements but chose, instead, to show spiritual courage of people who at a time of most severe ordeal preserve the noble and dignified beauty. It is this spiritual aspect of the picture that conquered the Italians.
In Russia The Last Day of Pompeii was admired by all. The most advanced saw through the brilliant technique of the masterpiece and understood the real dramatism of the picture. The outstanding author Alexander Hertzen described the painting as follows, “On the immense canvas, frightened people flock together in disorder. They are trying to find refuge, but in vain. They will be killed by the earthquake, by the eruption of the volcano and the storm of cataclysms. The wild senseless and merciless force will destroy them, and nothing can resist it. This has been inspired by the atmosphere of St. Petersburg.” Indeed, living in the foreign parts, Bryullov had retained his ties with Russia. He had a regular correspondence with his friends and relations. He knew about the cruel suppression of the insurrection of the revolutionaries from the aristocracy in December 1825. He saw that the enthroning of Nicholas I had resulted in reaction and persecution of freedom and enlightenment. To the progressively-minded Russians the blind life-taking merciless force could mean only one thing—the obtuse regime of the autocracy. Thus, in his historical painting Bryullov was able to express the feelings of his compatriots.
Bryullov returned to Russia at the end of 1835. On his way to St. Petersburg he spent about half a year in Moscow, which was a re-adaptation after a thirteen-year absence. In Moscow Bryullov painted several portraits, e.g. those of the writer Perovsky, actress Semionova, and poet and playwright Alexey Tolstoy. There he met many poets, painters, and actors, in particular, the best portrait-painter in Moscow, Vasily Tropinin and the great poet Alexander Pushkin (with the latter Bryullov very soon became friends). In Moscow Bryullov came to realize the necessity of democratic and true-to-life art, the idea that was current in the Russian society at the time. Bryullov understood that without associating with the “way of thinking and feeling” of the nation a talent, great as it may be, would be result in nothing.
In St. Petersburg Bryullov got to know the paintings of the outstanding artist Alexey Venetsianov; most of them depicted peasants and Russian nature. This also contributed to Bryullov’s turning to progressive ideas of Russian art.
Soon after his arrival in the capital of Russia, Bryullov started the Siege of Pskov commissioned by Nicholas I. The work on the picture lasted for many years. But in 1843 he abandoned the painting never to return to it. The failure may partly be accounted for by the general crisis of Russian historical painting, and to the end of his life Bryullov never worked with historical subjects. From then on, his highest achievements were in the field of portraiture. The line of development of his art was from the blend of Classicism and Romanticism of The Last Day of Pompeii, via the Romantic idiom that can still be discerned in his first portraits of the St. Petersburg period, to realistic tendencies that manifested themselves in the later portraits.
Even the portrait of Nestor Kukolnik painted as early as 1836 is somewhat indefinite as regards its belonging to an artistic trend or tradition. Conceived as a romanticized portrait of a poet-romantic, the painting is, in fact, an almost realistic rendering of a creative personality in conflict with his time, the time of political reaction, that brought about spiritual stagnation, disappointment, and inactivity. The poet’s eyes are sad, his posture and slender hands sluggishly passive. The theatrical pose and the smirk hidden in the corner of the mouth give the picture an undertone of irony. The role of a romantic hero seems to be an assumed one; ironic attitude towards “disillusioned romantic” fashionable in the 1830s was becoming more and more conspicuos in Russian and Western European literature. It was the decline of Romanticism gradually giving way to more realistic tendencies in art, that was reflected in Bryullov’s portrait.
The Portrait of Kukolnik was Bryullov’s first attempt at painting a psychological portrait. All his best intimate portraits produced after it, e.g. those of the fablist Ivan Krylov, V. Musin-Pushkin, A. Strugovshchikov, or the poet Vasily Zhukovsky, are characterized by individualization and deep insight into the model. The spiritual aspect became predominant in Bryullov’s portraiture. His supreme achievement in the field is undoubtedly the self-portrait completed in 1848 after a long and severe illness. The artist seems to be depicted at a moment of repose, his head resting helplessly against the back of the arm-chair, his thin pale arm hanging loose. But the idleness is illusory. The mental exertion behind the mask of passivity is so tangible that it is perceived as an active process. Reflection becomes a form of self-expression for a whole generation known later as “the generation of the 1840s.” In the picture the painter looking in the mirror sees a sick and lonely man and recognizes the traits of his contemporaries. The portrait is thus a confession d’un enfant du siecle in which the high idealism and passive inertess, noble aspirations and bitter disappointment, energy and resignation are caught forever and skilfully blended by the brush of a master.
New tones also appeared in ceremonial portraits of Bryullov’s mature period. One of these shows Yulia Samoilova and her foster daughter Amacilia Pacini leaving a masquerade. The Masquerade is the subtitle of the painting, reflecting its deeper meaning. The fantastically ostentatious interior and the imposing figure of the main participant, presented as an independent and strong personality help reveal the essential idea of the painting: what is going on amidst the colossal columns and fantastic arches is not a mere fancy ball; it is the whole society disguised in false attires and trying to act assumed roles. Samoilova, proud and full of contempt, shows that she has nothing to do with the world of deception scornfully taking off her mask.
After his illness Bryullov started for Madeira to improve his health. He went via Belgium, England, and Portugal finding everywhere that his name was known to local painters; so great was his fame.
During the year of recuperation on Madeira Bryullov worked much, creating a number of portraits and splendid water-colours. After that he went to Spain praised by all romantics of Europe. In the last two years Bryullov lived in Rome. Those years appear to have been the most fruitful. Some works produced in that period show that, but for his untimely death, both Russia and Europe as a whole would have had a master of an entirely new style. They also show Bryullov’s concern with the issue of the day. He came to know Angelo Tittoni, an important member of the Risorgimento and Garibaldi’s comrade-in-arms, who told Bryullov of the last years of their struggle, the suppression of the 1848 Revolution, and of the disappointment in connection with the hopes placed on the Pope Pius IX. It was then that Bryullov produced his first sketches with the events of the days as the subject matter, Political Manifestation in Rome in 1848 and Pope Pius IX Returning from the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore to Rome.
Contemporary Italy, suffering and oppresed but struggling, is the theme of Bryullov’s portraits of the last two years, e.g. the portraits of Angelo Tittoni, his brothers-Carbonari, his daughter depicted as Joan of Arc with armour and a horse, his mother Catherina Tittoni, the archaeologist Michelangelo Lanci, or the Portrait of an Abbot. The portraits, like those of the St. Petersburg period, show deep penetration into both the spirit of the time and the character of the portrayed, which makes them the works of historical value.
Those years are marked by a change in the approach to the objects depicted, which manifests itselfs clearly in the series of sepias Lazzaroni on a Seashore. The themes of Bryullov’s earlier pictures were concordant with the current idea of beauty viewed through the prism of art. Now he was able to liberate himself from aesthetic allusions, looking for plastic harmony that was to be found in nature and the unique individuality of the human character, of faces, figures, and gestures.
The Procession of the Blind in Barcelona depicts a dramatic scene from every-day life. The procession is of a ritualistic or religious kind: the blind musicians and their guides wear robes of the clergy; above the procession is a crucifix. In the context of the picture, the crucified Saviour looks like a symbol of testamentary suffering. Both the subject matter and technique of the painting evoke the Funeral of a Sardine and the Procession of Flagellants by Goya, whose pictures Bryullov must have seen for the first time in Spain. The change in technique that may be accounted for by Goya’s influence is even more pronounced in the Girl in a Forest.
It is most likely that the idea of painting the Ruinous Time (unrealized) appeared under the influence of Goya (Bryullov may have seen the fresco Saturn Devouring His Children in Goya’s house in Madrid). In the sketch, the figure of Saturn occupies the whole of the upper part. Saturn flings all and sundry into the Lethe— Freedom and Equality, Beauty and Love, scholars and poets, warriors and tyrants, countries and religions. At the bottom, Bryullov planned to depict himself with the picture.
Bryullov’s last works show unequivocally that his art entered a new phase. But the new potentials were never to be materialized, for on June 23, 1852 Karl Bryullov died.
In that year Russia suffered her bitter losses, Gogol’s death in February, Zhukovsky’s in April; in the autumn Fedotov, the most talented of Bryullov’s followers, ended his life in a mental clinic at the age of thirty seven. That was the end of a whole epoch in Russian culture, when the foundations of Russian art of the future were laid. Romanticism had reached its acme and Russian realism was on its way.