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Karl Pavlovich Brulloff (also rendered Briullov, although he himself used the "Bruloff" spelling) was a Russian painter of the first half of the 19th Century, one of the transitional artists between the schools of neoclassicism and romanticism and the first Russian painter to gain widespread recognition in the West. His contemporaries called him The Great Karl. His masterpiece The Last Day of Pompeii (1830-1833), an enormous composition painted in Italy in 1830-1833, was a great success both with the public and the critics and the painter was hailed as one of the best contemporary European painters. Italian critics compared Brulloff to the greatest artists of the past, such as Rubens, Rembrandt, and Van Dyke.
Karl Brulloff (Brullo until 1822, when the family name was changed to a more Russian style) was born in 1799 in St. Petersburg into a family of Italian extraction. His great grand-father, grand-father, father and two elder brothers Fedor and Alexander were all painters. His father was a member of the Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg, which is where Karl and his brothers received their education.
Karl entered the Academy in 1809. His talent and heritage told immediately and Brulloff advanced much faster than his fellow students. At the time, education in the academy was based on the principles of Classicism, and Brullof's early works reflect this clearly. 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. This was the beginning of the Romantic movement in both art and literature. One of Brulloff's early notable pictures Narcissus (1819), while painted in accordance with Classical principles in every regard, was unorthodox in its execution because the painter sought inspiration for the work in nature -- something that would be characteristic of the later Romantics.
However, it would be some time before Briulloff would break from the constraints of Classicism completely. His graduation work Three Angels Appear to Abraham near the Oaks of Mamre, while executed with technical brilliance, is otherwise quite conventional: the model work of a model student. Briulloff received a gold medal for it.
In 1821, Brulloff graduated from the Academy with distinguish. During the short period when he worked independently in the years 1821-1823, it is easy to observe his rapid shift from Classicism to Romanticism. The artist focused primarily on the portrait, an branch of painting that was frowned upon in the Academy as low, but which was central to the Romantic idealization of the human figure. Some of these works are the Portrait of the Secretary of State Piotr Kikin, Brulloff's patron, and his wife M.A. Kikina, and their daughter Maria Kikina, and the Portrait of the Actor A.N. Ramazanov.
In 1822, Karl, along with his brother Alexander, was sent to Europe to study art there, as pensioners of the newly-created Society for the Promotion of Artists. True to his Classical education, Brulloff frowned upon anything that went against Classical ideals, expressing this disdain in letters that he wrote home. The two artists travelled through Germany, Austria, Venice and Florence, eventually arriving in Rome. Just like his Romantic contemporaries, Bruloff found the city irresistable.
In total, Brulloff spent a total of 13 years in Italy, studying the art of antiquity, copying the works of old masters in the museums and making a lot of drawings in the streets of Rome. He painted portraits, both ceremonial and intimate ones, and created a series of genre scenes of everyday Roman life. The most important of his genre works was Italian Midday (1827). In Italy Brulloff created over 120 portraits in various techniques. Among them are portraits of the Russian aristocracy residing in Italy, as well as painters, sculptors, writers, etc., and also Italian statesmen and artists. Among the most notable are portraits of Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna, Prince G. Gagarin, Countess Yu. Samoilova and her foster children, Princess Z. Volkonskaya, Bruloff's brother Alexander, A. Lvov, Architect K. A. Ton, Italian singers Juditta Pasta and Fanny Persiani-Tacinardi and many others. He also painted several self-portraits, some of them were commissioned by the Uffizi Gallery. It was here that Brulloff met the countess Yulia Samoilova, who became his life-long mistress. The two were unable to make their relationship official, as Samoilova was already married, though she and her husband had separated, and divorce was not allowed under the laws of the Orthodox Church.
One of the requirements of the Society for the Promotion of Artists for its pensioners was to paint a large historical picture. In 1827, Brulloff visited the excavation site of Pompeii, a town destroyed and buried under a layer of ash during an eruption of the volcano Vesuvius on August 24, 79 A.D. Brulloff was greatly impressed when he saw the town, perfectly preserved under the ash. The cataclysm had been so sudden, that life had simply stopped, as if frozen in time. Six years would pass between the conception of the idea and its materialization. After the first sketches had been done, Brulloff began studying the artifacts found in the excavations and historical documents, such as the letters of Pliny the Younger, who was an eye-witness of the event. It is believed that the young man persuading his mother to come with him in the right part of the picture is Pliny himself. The Last Day of Pompeii(1830-1833) was a huge success in Italy because of the way it blended Classical principles with Romantic ideals. It was also exhibited in the Louvre, Paris, but its reception there was lukewarm: in France, the transition stage between Classicism and Romanticism had been passed long since.
When the painting arrived in St.Petersburg, it impressed the public profoundly, and made Brulloff's reputation as the foremost Russian painter of his day. Critics lavished the Last Day of Pompeii with praise, and Pushkin was inspired to write a poem on the subject. When Brulloff returned to Russia in 1835, the Academy of Arts organized a reception in his honor, and he was even granted an audience with Czar Nicholas I.
In 1836, Brulloff was appointed a professor at the Academy. His fame as an made him very much in demand, and when it turned out that he was also an excellent teacher, interested in the success of each and every one of his students, this was only augmented. In the years that followed he painted mostly portraits. Among the best portraits of this period are those of Author Nestor Kukolnic, Count A. A. Perovsky (the Author Anton Pogorelsky) and his nephew future Poet and Playwright Alexey Tolstoy, Author A. N. Strugovshchikov, Princess Ye. P. Saltykova, Countess Yu. P. Samoylova. Brulloff was expected to create more large historical paintings in the style of The Last Day of Pompeii, but though the artists started working on several such works, none went beyond sketches. None of the subjects he tried to paint -- the siege of Pskov by the Polish King Stefan Batori, the invasion of Rome by Henserix and the Napoleonic War of 1812 -- inspired him as Pompeii had.
By the late 1840s, Brulloff's health was deteriorating due to his unrestrained lifestyle, unhappy marriage and his hard work on frescoes in St. Isaac's Cathedral in St. Petersburg, which he was unable to finish. In 1849, the painter went abroad, in the hopes that warmer climes would help his recovery. Brulloff visited Germany and England, went to Madeira, where he spent one year and his health seemed to genuinely improve, and his last two years in Rome. He created several excellent works during these years, including portraits of members of the Tittoni family, with whom he was very close. He died of a stroke in Rome on June 23, 1852.