Karl Briullov and Nestor Kukolnik: A Story of Two Illustrations

Svetlana Kazakova

Magazine issue: 
#4 2008 (21)

The year 2009 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of the Russian writer Nestor Vasilievich Kukolnik. Eclipsed by the great Gogol’s anniversary, Kukolnik’s will most likely go unnoticed. The writer once seriously viewed as Pushkin’s literary rival is forgotten today - as undeservedly as he was once extravagantly extolled. Nestor Kukolnik, who was not only Gogol’s contemporary but also his classmate at the Nezhinsky school, today is probably remembered only as a friend of Karl Briullov and Mikhail Glinka. We owe to this friendship above all two masterpieces of Russian art: Karl Briullov made a superb portrait of Kukolnik, while the composer Glinka composed a series of romances to his poems “A Farewell to St. Petersburg”.

An intriguing find has prompted the author to inquire again into the artistic contacts between the artist and the writer. I have discovered literary artefacts that inspired Briullov’s two famous watercolours: “Rendezvous Interrupted” and “Grandma’s and Granddaughter’s Dream”. The fact that the engravings of both of Briullov’s watercolours illustrated Nestor Kukolnik’s novella “Psyche” has been ignored by scholars.

Two episodes in Nestor Kukolnik’s novella fully match the plot of these pictures. The intriguing point is that the novella was first published in 1841 in the literary journal “Utrennyaya Zarya” (Dawn) published by Vladimir Vladislavlev while Briullov’s pieces are believed to have been created during his Italian period — the late 1820s.

If we are to assume that the genre scenes were conceived as illustrations to the literary work, it would make sense to review their presumed dating. However, there is also another possibility: Nestor Kukolnik, when he saw his friend’s watercolours, was fascinated by the artist’s virtuosity and wit, and reproduced in his novella the pictures’ content nearly to the letter.

Before we study the two hypotheses, let’s compare the text and the images.

The first picture (in terms of the narrative) is “Rendezvous Interrupted (Water is over the brim already)”, now at the Tretyakov Gallery. The dating of the piece is uncertain. The tentative time span (18271830) proposed by Esfir Atsarkina has not been narrowed down to a more specific date or contested. Here is an episode from the novella, which almost completely matches the content of the watercolour work.

“About twenty steps short of the small house of the lady I’ve met I suddenly saw a window fly open and a granny, coughing, screamed in a squeaky voice wagging her finger: ‘Marianna! The water is over the brim already!..’ I looked back and saw an amusing scene: a bucket under the water- jet, the water having filled it long ago and now running over the brim swirling in rounds forming a cap; the girl extending one arm to the bucket, and another to a young man, passing him a rose, — the man, perhaps dismayed to discover the unexpected witness to her friendly explanations, has turned away from Marianna and, blushing all over, is beckoning a dog with his hand.”

The only difference between the picture and the text is that instead of the bucket we see a jug with two handles. On the verso we see a first sketch of the same picture. The young man’s pose is still roughly outlined — his torso facing the viewer rather than turned, his head up. His figure does not emanate the embarrassment and confusion so skillfully conveyed in the final version. The croquis shows that the artist was seeking a best position for the dog (there are three tentative outlines, although not very neat ones). The finished watercolour features the figures in mirror-like positions compared to the croquis. There are other minor differences as well. Yfet, interestingly, key details both in the sketch and the finished piece faithfully reproduce those from the novella.

The second watercolour, “Grandma’s and Granddaughter’s Dream”, from the graphic art collection of the Russian Museum, is dated to 1829. The recto carries an inscription in the Latin alphabet “Karl Briullov Rome 1829”. The picture features a bedroom, and two beds standing by side by side. Above the beds, a deity in a poppy wreath spreads around the images of nighttime dreams. To the left, an elderly woman is tranquilly asleep. In her dream she sees a gallant scene in the spirit of the 18 th century: a dandy flirts with a young beauty. Their hands are locked around a rose flower. The same visages are featured in the portraits in oval frames mounted over the grandmother’s headboard.

On the right bed lies a girl, huddled, frightened by a nightmare; the blankets are cast aside. The cloudlet of her dream features a mass of blurred images: a horseman on a winged horse, a half-naked captive woman racing alongside, a cemetery, a funeral procession carrying torches, and a skull with flames in its eye-holes.

Here is the relevant episode from the novella, where the grandmother of the heroine, a young painter named Hortensia, tells a doctor about what happened at night.

“Past midnight Morpheus spread out his poppy mantel, and we fell asleep. In my time, I was as handsome as Hortensia; I too was wooed by Narcissuses and Adonises; but more than the others I liked signor Caetano Alalki, a local manufacturer of taffeta and velvet. You can see for yourself, just look at his portrait — right there, up on that wall beside my portrait, over my bed; we parted long ago, but through all these 30 years after the separation, every time I pray in the evening he is called to my memory; that’s what happened yesterday as well. Just imagine, as soon as I fell asleep, everything became realer than real — me and him smiling on the portraits: me with all the shyness of a bride, him with all the affection of a bridegroom; he is unusually gentle and courteous: in the whole Como and in every neighborhood by the lake he was regarded as the most dandiest of dandies, and in our time the invasion of French fashion made dandyism difficult and expensive to pursue; justacorps a la Louis XIV were in, together with beauty spots and farthingales; I fathom that Caetano spent half of his plant’s proceeds on himself and his bride. We were already quite friendly with each other and I often took the liberty of correcting him.

Yesterday, too... ‘Ah, Caetano,’ I told him, ‘again a new dress!’ — and he, oh naughty boy, by way of reply offered me a rose — and with such a smile straight out of a Goldoni comedy, I couldn’t help laughing <...>

“I’m not sure how that rendezvous with Caetano would have ended up, for suddenly I heard someone moan and scream — so I wake up and see in the faint light of an oil lamp my Hortensia squirming with horror, blankets cast aside; you can read on her face that she is suffering a bad dream; just as I was getting up, she gave a piercing scream and sprang upright.

‘What is it, Hortensia?..’’
‘Where is it?’ asked she.
‘My mausoleum and the terrible bas-reliefs?’’
‘What bas-reliefs?’’

‘Ay, Grandma, you can’t imagine what I saw in the dream! Two men in this corner were putting up a gravestone to me. I, dead, was already in a coffin, and they wanted to take me down into the vault; scared, I was peering at my tomb; on its wall, instead of bas-reliefs, I saw some winged horses, skeletons, fairy-tale monsters. ‘I don’t want to!’ screamed I. ‘You don’t?’ the monsters hissed murmuring, materialized, took off from the marble and started making rounds over my head in the air with an awful noise and uproarious laughter; I wanted to hide, wrapping myself into the grave-clothes but couldn’t find them; the monsters were getting closer to me; one bas-relief, a winged horseman, lifted me from the coffin and carried along through the air; barely pulling myself together, I screamed and woke...”

Engraved by Robinson, both of Briullov’s pictures illustrated the novella "Psyche" and did not go unnoticed by the public. Vissarion Belinsky in his review of the journal paid attention to the illustrations while ignoring the text itself. It was not by chance that Briullov illustrated Kukolnik’s work. The most essential reason for this was the close friendly and artistic ties between the two most popular personalities of the age[1]. But there was more than that. The personification of high-society success, Karl Briullov was eager and able to position himself in the very vortex of modern life. Keenly sensitive to the public mood, he was well in touch with contemporary ideas and trends. Thus, the connection with contemporary literature, highly visible in Briullov’s art, was quite natural. According to his contemporaries, Briullov had a reputation as a fascinating partner in conversation, was always well informed about new literary works, read a lot and loved to be read to while resting. Pavel Nashchokin, in a letter of reference to Alexander Pushkin, characterized Briullov: “It has been long — I mean I don’t even remember how long — since I’ve met a person so ingenious, learned and intelligent.” Alexander Turgenev wrote that “with this artist, you can talk about his art, and he has read Pliny, and asks to loan him Goethe’s ‘Farben-lehre’...”[2] It is no wonder that working on his pictures Briullov often drew directly on novels, novellas and ballads that were famous and popular at that time.

Pictures from the series known as “Scenes from Spanish Life of the 17th century”, according to Esfir Atsarkina, are direct illustrations to or fantasies inspired by the novels of Dumas. Briullov’s albums from 1824-1840 contain sketches and studies for pictures themed around Byron’s “The Prisoner of Chillon”; the image of a knight returning a gauntlet illustrates Schiller’s ballad translated by Zhukovsky. Besides, according to the Tretyakov Gallery’s catalogue, the watercolour “Farewell” draws on Pushkin’s “The Blackamoor of Peter the Great”. Literary works also inspired several 1832 sketches (according to Ivan Bocharov and Yulia Glushakova[3]). Those include the sepias “Rendezvous in Prison”, “A Letter Discovered”, and “The Meeting of Lovers”. All these pieces were created at Yulia Samoilova’s villa by Lake Como — in the locality used as a setting by Tommaso Grossi in his novel “Marco Visconti”. And although the exact scenes depicted by Briullov are not to be found in the book, researchers are practically certain that the pictures are related to the plot of the literary work[4].

Besides the provocative popularity in drawing rooms and ball rooms, the literary base lent to Briullov’s works additional nuances and meanings. A good example of this is the painting “Svetlana (A Russian girl telling her fortune)”, uncontestably an allusion to Vasily Zhukovsky’s ballad of the same title. The colourful genre scene acquired in the mind of the contemporary viewer profound romantic overtones. Fortune-telling: not just an entertaining rite, but an attempt to transcend the limits of the visible, tangible world; the mirror — a symbol of connection with otherworldly elements; the reflection in the mirror, a typically romanticist play of the real and the unreal, an ambiguity in the interpretation of the true and the imaginary, the essence of existence and illusion. Wrapped in a haze of mysticism, the final verse of Zhukovsky’s ballad became directly associated with the painting:

“Happy that you look at me,
I don’t want fame;
Fame, so we were taught, is a smoke; Society is a sly judge.
Here is the message of my ballad:
‘In this life, our best friend Is belief in providence.
The Lord’s law is beneficial:
Here bad fortune is a deceitful dream,
And good fortune is an awakening.’”

Yet another Zhukovsky ballad was used by Briullov for his painting “Peri and the Angel”. Also, one cannot help remembering a painting themed around Pushkin’s poem “The Fountain of Bakhchisarai", which the artist started under the influence of the widely-shared grief over the poet’s demise. Initially Karl Briullov wanted to pay tribute to the great poet by designing a monument to him and a frontispiece for his published works. But these plans were not to materialize. Meanwhile, the painting was later sold to Grand Duchess Maria Nikolaevna for 5,000 currency bills.

Thus, it would be logical to assume that the pictures under consideration were made by Karl Briullov as an illustration to Nestor Kukolnik’s novella. This is in line both with the artist’s propensity to draw on popular literary works, and with the artistic interaction that marked the friendship between Briullov and Kukolnik. However, taking into account the generally accepted dating attribution of the watercolours, which appear uncontestable, we cannot ignore another possibility — that the descriptions of the already existing pictures could have been inserted into the text.

In terms of their content, both pictures might well have been autonomous pieces. “Rendezvous Interrupted” is an entertaining genre scene, a typical product of the time. As for the second watercolour, “Grandma’s and Granddaughter’s Dream”, the modern viewer may find its narrative unfathomable. The piece looks like a fragment of a bigger picture and calls for commentary. However, the painter’s contemporaries did not need such explanations. The young girl’s vision — the winged horseman with his frightened female companion, the cemetery, the skull — were run-of-the-mill, widely-known symbols of the popular romanticist trend. It was exactly in these terms that the arrival of the new trend to Russia was described by a witty memoir writer Philipp Vigel: “Zhukovsky acquired a taste for German literature and started to regale us <...> with its oeuvres <...> Corpses, ghosts, devilry, murders under the moonlight... instead of Hero waiting with a gentle excitement for the drowning Leander, to present us with madly passionate Lenore with the corpse of her lover racing on a horse! This is how romanticism started here[5].” Within the context of stereotypical ideas about the new trend, Briullov’s small watercolour is an understandably ironic take on the eternal topic — the ideals of old and new times. The simple joys and amorous adventures of the gallant age are contrasted with the somewhat creepy reveries of the younger generation besotted by romantic mysticism.

Such pictures were very popular in Briullov’s time, often presented as gifts. Briullov accomplished a considerable number of such pieces on commission. The young painter’s pictures were sought after by many art connoisseurs. Of course, the pieces were nothing like an imagination-driven improvisation in a young lady’s album, much less a sketch from nature. The two pictures lack the spontaneity of direct apprehension. Their abundance of details, elaborate design, and “artificiality” of composition remind the viewer that this is but an illustration (the pictures are essentially illustrative, narrative). On the other hand, Briullov’s art in fact has a narrative, descriptive tendency. From the very start he was fond of creating compositions along literary lines. Take, for example, a famous episode that occurred when he was studying at the Academy of Fine Arts. Not content to stay within the boundaries of an assignment, the talented student added to a study featuring a male model an imaginary landscape, and an ordinary posed picture became a mythology-related composition called “Narcissus”.[6]

Kukolnik’s story "Psyche" is set in Italy. Obviously, the writer drew on Briullov’s recollections, for he himself never visited Italy. The artist’s Italian impressions are felt both in the overall plot and in the details. The novella’s plot starts to unfold in the scenic locality of Lake Como. The narrator, a young doctor, relishes boat excursions, savoring the accord between nature and poetic feeling. These episodes were most likely “borrowed” from Briullov’s stories about his sojourn by Lake Como — he stayed there in Yulia Samoilova’s villa in 1832. Briullov captured his sweet memories of the water excursions on the painting “Self-portrait in a Boat”.

The main character in Kukolnik’s novella is an Italian sculptor Antonio Canova (1757—1822). For Kukolnik, that was not the first time that he tackled this personality — in 1838 he published an article about the life and art of the famous Italian artist. Meanwhile, in the novella Kukolnik gives a fictional turn to the interpretation of the artist’s life, introducing events and facts he did not mention in the biographical piece — and these facts again point to Briullov’s influence.

The novella tells the tragic story of an Italian lass in love with the brilliant sculptor. The unrequited love leads her to suicide — devastated by the lack of understanding, she throws herself into the Tiber. The plot is reminiscent of a scandalous incident in which Briullov himself was involved in Rome. In the late 1820s a young woman took her life because of him, plunging herself into the Tiber from the Ponte Molle bridge. The incident caused much public concern, and caused a great deal of harm to Briullov’s reputation.

Kukolnik’s interpretation of the events was obviously intended to release his artist friend from responsibility for the tragedy, representing him as the victim of destiny and circumstances. Kukolnik depicts the psychology of a genius who is a hostage to his own greatness: “A rock is not to blame if a passionate wave breaks into miniscule spattering drops rushing to kiss the rock’s granite brow!” The sculptor Canova is portrayed as a high-minded person possessing both the moral virtues and the power of talent. Art and well-doing are the two realms upon which all his attention is focused. Thus, the simple-mindedness in everyday life typical for the sculptor absorbed in his art lays out a trap for him. Unable to comprehend the whirlwind of human passions, in a critical moment Canova proves insensitive and even tactless. An earnest desire to help the girl results in an awkward tragic misunderstanding and brings her to her death. Briullov, having often talked with Kukolnik about his feelings, probably reached that interpretation on that notorious episode from his life.

It is easy to imagine Nestor Kukolnik discussing with the “fraternity”, at a reunion, the idea for the novella and reading finished fragments. The first half of the 19th century was a time notably rich and diverse in cultural activities. Arts became a part of everyday life, forming its live texture. The exchange of artistic ideas and discussion of creative plans were a common topic of conversation in society drawing rooms. Friends presented to one another narrative plots and fictional characters, musical themes and poetic phrases. Leafing through Briullov’s album of watercolours, Kukolnik could suddenly get an idea to describe several genre pieces in his novella. That was in keeping with the habits of the time — a literary play, a joke similar to poetic improvisations on a given topic, fashionable in the drawing rooms of the time, to acrostic or bouts-rimes poems. The fact that both illustrations treat only peripheral subplots of the main narrative seem to confirm this version. In the novella the episodes illustrated look more like optional appendages, “literary vignettes”.

So what came first — the illustrations or the novella? Was it Kukolnik following in the artist’s footsteps or Karl Briullov illustrating his friend’s work? It remains difficult to decide, and more archival research is needed. Whatever the case, both versions demonstrate interesting forms of interaction between Russian literature and pictorial art characteristic of the first half of the 19th century.


  1. As is well known, the friendship of Karl Briullov, Nestor Kukolnik and composer Mikhail Glinka played an important role in the cultural life of St. Petersburg in the late 1830s-early 1840s. To the romantically minded generation, that union appeared an epitome of the seamless synthesis of three arts. Major ideological importance was attached to the friendship of the artist, the composer and the writer: it was believed that the union could influence the aesthetic development of the entire society.
  2. Porudominsky, Vladimir. Pushkin. Time. Notes / Panorama iskusstv (Panorama of arts). 8, p. 345, 350
  3. Bocharov, Ivan, and Glushakova, Yulia. Karl Briullov. Italian findings. - Moscow, Znanie publishers, 1984
  4. Some authors mistakenly believe that Bruillov's artistic temper took him away from direct illustrating - instead he preferred free fantasies. This is not true to fact. Let us take two engravings of Bruillov's drawings made for the literary almanac, mentioned by Taras Shevchenko in his novella “The Artist": “Karl Pavlovich promised to make a drawing for Smirdin's one hundred Russian writers, and he took advantage of his whole collection of books.” The almanac included some engravings by Bruillov, namely, to Osip Senkovsky's story “Turning Heads into Books and Turning Books into Heads” and to Alexander Shishkov's story “Reminiscences about my Friend”.
  5. Vigel, Philipp. Notes / Russian memoir. Selected pages. 18001825. Pp. 470-471
  6. The subject is based on the third book of Ovid's “Metamorphoses"
Karl BRIULLOV. Portrait of Nestor Kukolnik. 1836
Karl BRIULLOV. Portrait of Nestor Kukolnik. 1836
Oil on canvas. 117 × 81.7 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Karl BRIULLOV. Rendezvous Interrupted (“Water is over the brim already”). 1827–1830
Karl BRIULLOV. Rendezvous Interrupted (“Water is over the brim already”). 1827–1830
Watercolour, whitewash, pencil on cardboard. 23 × 18.7 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
John Henry ROBINSON. Rendezvous Interrupted
John Henry ROBINSON. Rendezvous Interrupted
Engraving of Karl Briullovʼs watercolour. Literary journal “Utrennyaya Zarya” (Dawn) 1841
Karl BRIULLOV. Grandmaʼs and Granddaughterʼs Dream. 1829
Karl BRIULLOV. Grandmaʼs and Granddaughterʼs Dream. 1829
Watercolour, varnish on paper. 22.5 × 27.4 cm. Russian Museum
John Henry ROBINSON. Grandmaʼs and Granddaughterʼs Dream
John Henry ROBINSON. Grandmaʼs and Granddaughterʼs Dream
Engraving of Karl Briullovʼs watercolour. Literary journal “Utrennyaya Zarya” (Dawn) 1841
Karl BRIULLOV. Rendezvous in Prison. 1832
Karl BRIULLOV. Rendezvous in Prison. 1832
Sepia on paper. 25.7 × 21.1 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Karl BRIULLOV. The Meeting of Lovers. A Letter Discovered. 1832
Karl BRIULLOV. The Meeting of Lovers. A Letter Discovered. 1832
Two compositions on one sheet. Sepia on paper. 22.3 × 32 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Karl BRIULLOV. Svetlana (A Russian Girl Telling Her Fortune). 1836
Karl BRIULLOV. Svetlana (A Russian Girl Telling Her Fortune). 1836
Oil on canvas. 94 × 81 cm. Nizhny Novgorod Art Museum
Karl BRIULLOV. Portrait of the Painter and Portrait of the Duchess Moeller-Zakomelskaya with a Girl in a Boat. 1830-е. Unfinished
Karl BRIULLOV. Portrait of the Painter and Portrait of the Duchess Moeller-Zakomelskaya with a Girl in a Boat. 1830s
Unfinished. Oil on canvas. 151.5 × 190.3 cm. Russian Museum
Karl BRIULLOV. Narcissus Looking into the Water. 1819
Karl BRIULLOV. Narcissus Looking into the Water. 1819
Oil on canvas. 162 × 209.5 cm. Russian Museum





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