Why The Last Day of Pompeii by Bryullov is a masterpiece

Karl Bryullov. The last day of Pompeii
Karl Bryullov. The last day of Pompeii. 1833. State Russian Museum.

The phrase “The Last Day of Pompeii” is recognized by everyone, because the death of this ancient city was once depicted by Karl Bryullov (1799-1852).

In such wise, the artist experienced an incredible triumph. At first, in Europe, since he created the artwork in Rome. Italians crowded outside his hotel to greet the genius. Walter Scott sat at the painting for several hours, amazed to the core. 

Its even harder to imagine what was happening in Russia. After all, Bryullov created something that immediately raised the prestige of Russian painting to an unprecedented height! 

People crowded beside the painting day and night. Bryullov even received a personal audience with tzar Nicholas I. The nickname Karl the Great” was firmly entrenched in painter. 

Only Alexander Benois, a famous art historian of the 19th and 20th centuries, dared to criticize “Pompeii”. And he criticized very viciously: “Pomposity … Painting for all tastes … Theatrical loudness … Crackling effects  

So, what exactly amazed the majority and annoyed Benois so much? Let’s try to figure it out. 

Where did Bryullov get the plot from? 

In 1828, the young Bryullov lived and worked in Rome. Shortly before that, archaeologists began excavating three cities that died under the ashes of Vesuvius. There were three of them. Pompeii, Herculaneum and Stabiae. 

This was an incredible discovery for Europe. After all, they knew about the life of the ancient Romans from fragmentary written evidence before. But now there are as many as 3 cities, preserved for 18 centuries! With all the houses, frescoes, temples, and public toilets. 

Of course, Bryullov could not pass by such an event and went to the excavation site. By that time, Pompeii was the best cleared. The artist was so amazed by what he saw that he started work almost immediately. 

He worked very decently for 5 years. Most of his time was spent on collecting materials, sketches. The work itself took 9 months. 

Bryullov: a documentalist 

Despite all the “theatricality” which Benois mentioned, there is a lot of truth in Bryullov’s painting. 

The scene was not invented by him. That street at the Herculaneum Gate, depicted by the artist, actually exists in Pompeii. And the ruins of a temple with a staircase still stand there. 

Bryullov personally studied the remains of the victims. And he found some of the heroes in Pompeii. For example, a deceased woman hugging two daughters. 

Karl Bryullov. The last day of Pompeii. Detail
Karl Bryullov. The last day of Pompeii. Fragment (mother with daughters). 1833. State Russian Museum.

On one of the streets, there were found wheels from a carriage and scattered decorations. So Bryullov got the idea to depict the death of a noble Pompeian woman. 

She tried to escape in a chariot, but an earthquake knocked out a cobblestone from the pavement, and the wheel ran over him. Bryullov portrayed the most tragic moment. The woman fell out of the chariot and passed. Her baby, that survived the fall, cries at the mother’s body. 

Karl Bryullov. The last day of Pompeii. Fragment

Among skeletons discovered, Bryullov saw a pagan priest who tried to take his wealth with him. 

On the canvas, the artist depicted a priest tightly clutching the attributes for pagan rituals, made of precious metals. He is not shown in a very favorable light in comparison to the Christian clergyman. 

Who we can identify by the cross on his chest. He bravely looks at the enraged Vesuvius. If you look at clergyman and pagan priest together, it is clear that Bryullov specifically opposed Christianity to paganism, not in favor of the latter. 

The last day of Pompeii. Priests
Left: K. Bryullov. The last day of Pompeii. Priest. 1833. Right: K. Bryullov. The last day of Pompeii. Christian priest.

Buildings in the painting are crumbling correctly. Volcanologists claim that Bryullov depicted an earthquake of 8 points. And it is very reliable. This is exactly how buildings collapse during tremors of such strength. 

A crumbling temple and Falling statues

Lighting is very well thought out in Bryullov’s work. The lava of Vesuvius illuminates the background so brightly, that it saturates the buildings with a red color, and it seems that buildings are on fire. 

In this example, the foreground is illuminated with white light from a flash of lightning. Such contrast makes the space especially deep and believable at the same time. 

Karl Bryullov. The last day of Pompeii. Fragment (Lighting, contrast of red and white light)

Bryullov: a theatre director 

But in the depiction of people, plausibility is absent. Here Bryullov, of course, is far from realism. 

What would we have, if Bryullov were more realistic? There would be chaos and pandemonium. 

We wouldn’t have the opportunity to look at every character, on the contrary: we would see them in parts: legs, arms, one would lie on the other. They would have already been pretty dirty with soot and dirt. And the faces would be distorted with horror. 

And what do we see at Bryullov?

The groups of characters are arranged in such a way so that we can see each of them. Even in the face of death, they are divinely beautiful. 

One is spectacularly holding a rearing horse. One gracefully covers their head with dishes. One elegantly holds a loved one. 

Karl Bryullov. The last day of Pompeii. Fragments
Karl Bryullov. The last day of Pompeii. Fragments

They are beautiful like Gods, even when their eyes are full of tears from the realization of imminent death. 

Karl Bryullov. The last day of Pompeii. Fragments with girls

Bryullov does not idealize everything to such an extent. We see one character trying to catch falling coins, remaining petty even at such a moment. 

Last Day of Pompeii (detail)

Yes, this is a theatrical performance. This is a catastrophe, the most aesthetic of it. Benois was right about criticizing that. But it is only due to the paintings theatricality that we do not turn away in horror. 

The artist allows us to sympathize with these people, but not strongly believe that in a second they will die. 

This is more of a beautiful legend than a harsh reality. It’s mesmerizingly beautiful, no matter how blasphemous it may sound. 

Personal themes in The Last Day of Pompeii

Bryullov’s personal experiences can also be seen in the painting. You can see that all the main heroines of the canvas have the same face. 

Last Day of Pompeii (details with women)

At different ages, with different expressions, but this is the same woman – Countess Yulia Samoilova, the love of the life of the painter Bryullov. 

As proof of the similarity, one can compare the heroines with the portrait of Samoilova, which also hangs in the Russian Museum. 

Karl Bryullov. Countess Samoilova, retiring from the ball at the Persian envoy
Karl Bryullov. Countess Samoilova, retiring from the ball at the Persian envoy (with her adopted daughter Amatsilia). 1842. State Russian Museum.

They met in Italy and even examined the ruins of Pompeii together. And then suddenly their romance carried on with interruptions for long 16 years. Their relationship was open: meaning that both artist and the countess allowed themselves to be engaged with other relationships. 

Bryullov even managed to get married during this time. Though, he quickly divorced, literally after 2 months. Only after the wedding did he learn the terrible secret of his wife. Her lover was her father, who wished to remain in this status in the future. 

After such a shock, only Samoilova could console the artist. 

They parted forever in 1845 when Samoilova decided to marry a very handsome opera singer. Her happiness did not last long either. A year later, her husband died of consumption. 

Samoilova married for the third time only intending to regain the title of countess, which she lost due to her marriage to the singer. All her following life she paid a lot of support to her husband, without living with him. Therefore, she died almost in complete poverty. 

On the canvas, you can also see Bryullov himself. Also in the role of an artist who covers his head with a box of brushes and paints. 

Karl Bryullov. The last day of Pompeii. Fragment (self-portrait of the artist)
Karl Bryullov. The last day of Pompeii. Fragment (self-portrait of the artist). 1833. State Russian Museum.

So why is The Last Day of Pompeii a masterpiece 

The Last Day of Pompeii is monumental in every way; A huge canvas: 3×6 meters. Dozens of characters. Many details by which you can study ancient Roman culture. 

The Last Day of Pompeii is a story about a catastrophe told very spectacularly and delightfully. The characters selflessly played their roles. Special effects are at the highest level. The light is delivered phenomenally. It is a theater, but a very professional theater. 

In Russian art, no one else could paint a catastrophe like that. In the West, Pompeii” can only be compared with The Raft of the Medusa by Gericault. 

Theodore Gericault. Raft of Medusa.
Theodore Gericault. Raft of Medusa. 1819. Louvre, Paris.

And even Bryullov himself could not surpass himself. After Pompeii” he never managed to create a similar masterpiece. Although he will live another 19 years … 


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Photos: Wikimedia Commons

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