Karl Pavlovich Bryullov - Biography

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Karl Pavlovich Briullov - Selfportrait

Karl Pavlovich Bryullov, known by his friends as “Karl the Great” or the “Tzar of Painting,” was the first Russian painter of international standing. He is often regarded as the founder of Russian Romanticism.

Born of French parents (descended from the Huguenots) in St. Petersburg, he was named Charles Bruleau until 1822. His great grandfather, grandfather, father and two elder brothers, Fyodor and Aleksandr, were all artists. Bryullov's first teacher of painting was his father who was a sculptor and ornamentalist and a member of the Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg, where all his sons received their education. From 1809 - 1821 Bryullov studied at the Academy under the artists Andrey Ivanov, Aleksey Yegorov and Vasily Shebuev.

Horsewoman (the Pupils of Countess Samoilova)

With his talent and heritage Karl advanced much faster than his fellow students. At the time, educa-tion at the Academy was based on the principles of Classicism, and Bryullov's early works reflect this clearly. In spite of stylistic constraints, art education in Russia was superb in quality. What mat-tered most was to teach the artist to think historically, philosophically, ethically and morally. Draw-ing - the main subject of the Academy's curriculum - was Bryullov's specialty. When he painted something requiring encyclopedic knowledge and compositional skill, he worked playfully and with ease. However, the political and social changes that the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars had perpetrated in Europe were beginning to manifest themselves in fashions and artistic tastes forming the Romantic trend in both fine arts and literature in Russia as well.

One of Bryullov's early paintings, Narcissus (1819), while composed in accordance with Classical principles in every re-gard, was unorthodox in its finishing because the painter sought inspiration for the work in nature - something that would become characteristic of the Romantics.

File:Brullov demid.jpg
Portrait Aurora Karamzin, 1837

However, it would be some time before Bryullov would break from the constraints of Classicism completely. His graduation work Three Angels Appear to Abraham by the Oaks of Mamre, while completed with technical brilliance, is otherwise a model work of a model student. Bryullov re-ceived a gold medal for it and a scholarship from the newly created Society for the Promotion of Artists, which helped artist to travel abroad to Germany and Italy for three-year periods (for Bryullov it would be 15). During the short period he worked in Russia independently (1821 – 1822), it is easy to observe his shift from Classicism to Romanticism. The artist focused primarily on the portrait genre, which was frowned upon in the Academy as it was considered low profile, but which was central to the Ro-mantic idealization of the human figure. His works of this period include the Secretary of State Pyotr Kikin (Bryullov's patron at the time) with his wife and daughter and of the actor Aleksandr Ramazanov.

In 1822, Karl and his brother Aleksandr, an architect, left for Europe. True to his alma mater, young Bryullov frowned upon anything that went against academic ideals, expressing this disdain in letters that he wrote home. The two artists traveled through Germany, Austria, Venice and Florence, even-tually arriving in Rome. Like many of his contemporaries, Bryullov found the city irresistible; he was captivated by the way of life and customs of the Italians, their humor and lyricism.

Like many foreigners working in Italy, he made copies of Raphael's Vatican murals, painted por-traits of distinguished visitors and idealized figures of young Italian women representing the times of day – cheerful, harmonious works that destroyed the strict academic canons of beauty. He also performed many watercolor and pencil studies including ruins or other picturesque landscape mo-tifs. He created a series of genre scenes of everyday Roman life. The most important of these was Italian Midday (1827), in which the artist achieved naturalness in the image of a naked body and il-lumination effects. The Society for the Promotion of Artists required that all its pensioners create at least one large his-torical painting. In 1827, Bryullov visited the excavation site of Pompeii, a town in southern Italy destroyed and buried under a layer of ash following the eruption of Mount Vesuvius on 24 August 79 AD. Bryullov was greatly impressed when he saw the ancient town, perfectly preserved under the ash. The cataclysm had been so sudden that life had simply stopped, as if frozen in time. Six years passed between the conception of the idea and its materialization on a huge epic 24 square meter (456.5cm x 651cm) canvass known as The Last Day of Pompeii (1830 - 1833).

Bryullov obtained financial backing from the wealthy Russian art collector Count Anatoly Demidov and spent three years (1830 – 1833) on the actual painting while visitors flocked to his studio to see the work in progress. After the first sketches had been done, he began studying the artifacts found in excavations and historical documents, such as the letters of Pliny the Younger, who was an eyewit-ness to the event (it is believed that Pliny is portrayed as the young man persuading his mother to come with him in the right part of the picture). After much historical and archeological research, Bryullov chose an existing location in Pompeii as the setting for his painting.

The Last Day of Pompeii, 1830-33

The painting shows the ancient catastrophe, the eruption of Vesuvius, which involved the destruc-tion of Herculaneum and Pompeii in 79 AD. After the buried cities were discovered, this event be-came a popular motif in the art and culture of the 18th and 19th centuries. In his work, Bryullov discerned a profound feature, consonant with romanticism - the idea of the global end of civiliza-tion. Rich and splendid, a civilization dies dramatically: palaces crumble, statutes fall, the sky with horrible black clouds catches fire, clods mix into total black rain. At the horrible moment of disas-ter, people with faces and postures, beautiful in their antique way, are full of goodness and self-sacrifice. On the other hand, Bryullov's painting can be interpreted as a moral and sublime allegory of Destruction of the Impure Town, which symbolically meant the punishment of sinful souls en-meshed in vile passions and a Divine warning for human civilization. Nearly all the figures and de-tails depicted in Bryullov's painting can be read through esoteric metaphors familiar to pious Rus-sian audiences of the time, especially the Freemasons (Bryullov belonged to this category).

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