Scenes from Karl Bryullov's Italian Journey

Natalya Solomatina, Oleg Antonov

Magazine issue: 
#2 2013 (39)


Executed during a short period of time, during the artist's first trip to Italy in the late 1820s and early 1830s, these drawings once again show Bryullov's love of genre motifs and his close attention to the models and scenery he painted. These works reveal the artist's creative process, illustrating the path from his insightful studies and sketches towards the masterfully constructed genre watercolours and sepia drawings that made Bryullov one of the most celebrated watercolourists and draftsmen of his generation, and are themselves highly valued by art connoisseurs.

The "Italian Sitters in Traditional Costumes" series of 14 sheets1 was discovered by Alexander Benois and Pyotr Neradovsky in 1920, in the former mansion of the Naryshkin family in Petrograd2, and acquired by the Russian Museum in 1926. Over decades these works have remained controversial, with opinions ranging from admiration for these studies, so different from the well-known "Italian genre scenes", to refusal even to consider the possibility of including them in the artist's oeuvre. Olga Lyaskovskaya pointed out that "they are painted with such force and such severe realism that should we attribute them to Bryullov, we will have to extend the range of his oeuvre".3 In contrast, Esfir Atsarkina, author of the most comprehensive publication on the artist, denied that they were by Bryullov, assigning them to the section "works by unknown artists attributed to Bryullov"4.

Until very recently, it was the analysis of the artist's manner (often revealed in small details), and similarities to and differences from other works by Bryullov in the collection of the Russian Museum5 that remained the core of such attributions. There had been no known analogous works until another large collection, first published as "The Italian Album"6, was found in the United Kingdom in the 1990s.

For a century and a half "The Italian Album" was held in the private collection of the counts Wittgenstein: it is comprised of 33 drawings and watercolours, as well as the title sheet with Bryullov's handwritten dedication to Countess Stefania Wittgenstein, nee Rad-ziwill, complete with the date and place, "Римъ апрЪлъ 3./MDCCCXXXII" (Rome, April 3. 1832). Bryullov presented the Wittgensteins with this gift of drawings during their last meeting in Italy. After the birth of her second child, Pyotr, Stefania was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and the family left Italy for the French resort of Ems. However, treatment there did not cure the young woman, and on July 14 1832 Stefania Wittgenstein died, aged 22.

Stefania had received Bryullov's gift of one or several drawings, along with the title sheet, on April 3 1832. Most of the sheets must have become part of the Wittgenstein album in various other ways, since they are larger than the title sheet and could not possibly have fitted into the "cover", the folded-in-half title sheet with the dedication. We know that Bryullov was friendly with Stefania's husband, Count Lev Wittgenstein: they met both in Italy and St. Petersburg7, and corresponded with one another. Thus, it makes sense to assume that the owners added the additional sheets to the album in the years after 1832. In all likelihood, Bryullov was in the habit of donating some of his works (drawings, sketches and studies) to those of his patrons who became admirers of his work, as well as his friends. This would explain how the Naryshkins came into possession of their "Italian Sit-ters in Traditional Costumes" and the Wittgensteins acquired the drawings for "The Italian Album"8.

Bryullov's signature on the title sheet of the album - a distinctive, elegant and effortless stroke - is well documented: the album with his sketches held at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts has a sheet covered with trial signatures by the young artist9. Drawings from "Italian Sitters in Traditional Costumes" and "The Italian Album" reveal numerous similarities in the artist's style, in his themes, in the types of sitters and poses he chooses, as well as his technical and compositional methods. On many occasions, we see the same sitters: women from the environs of Rome, from the regions of Lazio and Nettuno, Sanino, and Olevano, as well as monks, pilgrims, shepherds, and travelling musicians. In these thorough and detailed studies we see not so much a masterful draftsman but an attentive observer keenly interested in grasping the characteristic details of his sitters' dress and the typical features of everyday Italian life.

With this task in mind, Bryullov strove to render carefully the details of a shepherd's dress (a long fur vest, the manstruca, and leather knee guards) in his drawing "Shepherd in Manstruca with a Staff" (in the Atlanta Art album). The artist made several sketches of male and female sitters from Ciociaria, a region in southwest Lazio, who are clearly identified by their double-soled sandals with leather straps known as cioce, the characteristic rustic footwear of the region. These sketches include "Wealthy Ciociara with a Basket" and "Pifferari" (both at the Russian Museum), and "Italian Woman from Sanino with a Small Wooden Chest" (Atlanta Art). There is also "Italian Woman from Nettuno" (Atlanta Art), depicted in her cartonella, a headdress typically worn in the port of Nettuno. The artist was also drawn to Rome's laz-zaroni, the poor"street people", and depicted them in his drawing'laz-zarone" (Atlanta Art) and in the sepia "Travellers at Rest" (Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts).

Bryullov's reason for executing such drawings was based on the nature of the commissions he received during that period. He wrote to the Society for the Support of Artists in June 1825: "Presently, along with the afore-mentioned copy at the Vatican10, I have begun several paintings in the Flemish style; also, at the request of Her Excellency Countess Nesselrode, I started painting five works depicting various ethnic and traditional [italics - N.S., O.A.] scenes of Rome..."11.

Though they are not true studies for any of Bryullov's known paintings or genre watercolours, drawings in both collections share certain themes and mood. In particular, the watercolour "Pilgrim on One Bent Knee" (Atlanta Art) takes the viewer back to the artist's earlier painting "Pilgrims at the Doors of Basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano (1825, Tretyakov Gallery); the drawing "Pifferari" is reminiscent of "Pifferari Before a Painting of the Madonna" (1825, Tretyakov Gallery), and works such as "A Praying Pilgrim" and "Monk Holding on to His Cassock" echo the watercolour "At Confession" (1827-1830, Russian Museum).

Several works from both albums are not really studies of sitters but rather attempts to develop certain genre motifs and spatial relationships. In this respect, some of the more significant works are "Ciociara Sitting on a Rock" with a view of Rome in the evening in the background; "Italian Woman from Nettuno" with a fountain with a sculpture of Neptune discernible behind the figure of the woman, and "Pifferari" and "Kneeling Italian Woman in Church" (Russian Museum), the last two introducing a certain narrative.

Bryullov's watercolour "Italian Woman Rocking a Cradle" (Atlanta Art) is a step forward in terms of the artist's method, becoming a genre scene in its own right. Here, the focus is on space and composition - once again, we see an Italian sitter in the forefront, with a restaurant scene visible behind through the doorframe. "In Church" and the unfinished watercolour "Young Boy and a Donkey by a Well" (both in the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts ) reveal approximately the same stage in Bryullov's work on his "ethnic and traditional scenes of Rome". The latter is executed on the back of another drawing, "In a Dungeon", which is a sketched version of the artist's illustration for Lord Byron's poem "The Prisoner of Chillon".

The drawings depicting the so-called "robbers" - "A Sitting Robber", "A Robber Cleaning his Rifle with a Ramrod", "A Robber in front of a Seascape" (all, Atlanta Art) - form a somewhat separate group. This was an extremely popular theme in the Romantic era, and many of Bryullov's contemporaries, such as Aleksander Ortowski and Pyotr Basin, turned to it in their art. Unlike Bryullov's Roman genre studies, this motif did not lead to any finished paintings or drawings; it was, however, also the result of certain "field observations" - at the end of the 1820s the Italian struggle for national independence and territorial integrity was at its height. Members of the Carbonari took part in that movement; their activity was shrouded in romantic secrecy and legend, and became no less attractive as an art motif. Just like robbers, the Carbonari were armed in order to resist the authorities and aid their "brothers".

Bryullov's expertly executed and widely-known genre watercolours and sepia drawings make up one of the most masterful and compelling parts of his oeuvre. He was one of the first artists in Russia to turn to painting genre scenes, and his small-scale watercolour scenes were popular with his Russian patrons who were travelling in Italy. In such works, Bryullov is revealed as a "captivating storyteller" and a spectacular watercolourist with a special gift for light and colour.

Watercolours like "At Confession", "First Kiss" and "Italian Girl Blowing a Kiss from a Window" (all in the Russian Museum) seem to depict scenes that the artist snatched straight from the streets or ordinary homes of Italy; however, they were entirely the product of his imagination, as well as the result of a working process similar to that he used when creating his oil paintings. A good example is "Italian Girl Blowing a Kiss from a Window", a sepia drawing whose theme Bryullov was initially planning to use for an oil painting. In March 1827 he wrote to the Society for the Support of Artists about his desire to create a painting to match his "Morning in Italy" (1823, Kunsthalle, Kiel): "The subject is from life... a young girl, having returned home after a celebration, comes to the window to lock it; with a lamp in one hand, she greets someone outside with a typical Italian gesture."12

Behind this seemingly effortless manner and craftsmanship, which was so characteristic of all of Bryullov's Italian genre scenes and so highly valued by the master's contemporaries, there was extensive and painstaking preliminary work that is reflected in such drawings as "Italian Sitters in Traditional Costumes" and "The Italian Album", as well as other numerous album sketches.

The two watercolours "Italian Family (Expecting a Child)" (Russian Museum) and "Italian Woman with a Baby by the Window" (Pushkin Fine Arts Museum), along with the sepia drawing "A Mother Woken by Her Baby Crying" (Russian Museum), do not just share a common theme; instead, they form a sequential narrative of the life of a simple Italian family before and after a child is born. The idyllic watercolour scenes are filled with everyday details that enrich the story, and the artist's free, spirited manner adds big splashes of colour. In contrast, "A Mother Woken by Her Baby Crying" is executed with precise, tightly-laid brushstrokes.

Bryullov's gift for weaving a narrative is fully expressed in a small series of watercolours dedicated to a unique motif in his Italian oeuvre, that of dreams: "A Grandmother's and a Granddaughter's Dreams", "A Nun's Dream" (both at the Russian Museum) and "A Young Girl's Dream before Dawn while a Shepherd Plays His Horn" (Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts). These watercolours fit as seamlessly into the romantic aesthetics of star-gazing and unconscious desires untamed by the mind as Bryullov's enchanting Italian "everyday" genre scenes, or his "oriental" sepias, filled with dreams of distant travels.

These works share similar compositions and an astonishing mastery of the watercolour technique. They charm the viewer with their good-natured humour and touching sentimentality, as well as being informal and uninhibited. Thus, "A Grandmother's and a Granddaughter's Dreams" tells the story of different times of life and different personalities: the grandmother's dream takes her back to the Rococo era, the time of her youth (echoed by the pair of portraits in gilded frames on the wall of the bedroom). The granddaughter's dream reveals her fascination with romantic adventure novels: she sees herself on horseback, with a chivalrous knight, dashing past a graveyard. Through their exceptionally vivid and convincing poses, Bryullov shows us the different nature of the two women's dreams: the grandmother is calm and peaceful in her sleep, while the young girl is restless and tense - even her blanket has ended up on the floor. The artist clearly takes pleasure in his meticulous depiction of the clothes hanging on the chair; he is even particular about the time, with the clock showing 20 minutes past one in the morning.

Bryullov displays the same attention to detail in "A Nun's Dream", where the time is also set: the monastery bell is calling for the morning mass, and a senior nun has come to the cell - we see the words ORA PRO NOBIS, Latin for "Pray for Us", over its door - to wake the novice. But the young girl's dreams could not be further from the church service - in them, she is with her beloved. It is noteworthy that Bryullov does not just tell us about an abstract situation, but fills his narrative with significant real-life details, clearly the result of his own observations: the older nun is wearing the red scapular of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, and the symbol of the Sacred Heart appears on the door to the cell. These images tell us that the nuns belong to one of the orders devoted to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which were especially numerous during the years that Bryullov spent in Italy.

The third watercolour of this series, "A Young Girl's Dream before Dawn while a Shepherd Plays His Horn", lacks the slight frivolity of the first two compositions. Its theme is pointedly chaste: in the young girl's dream, her father is blessing her union with her beloved, who happens to be the same shepherd playing his horn for her in the early morning. The allegorical female figure depicted above the sleeping girl adds to the wedding motif, spreading as she does a veil and sprinkling flowers and rose petals over the bed.

Such scenes were phenomenally popular among Russian art connoisseurs (both with Bryullov's contemporaries, and in later years) and were responsible for the spread of the "salon style" in art. The provenance of each watercolour bears witness to this: "A Grandmother's and a Granddaughter's Dreams" belonged to the Grand Duchess Yelena Pavlovna, whose portrait with her young daughter Bryullov painted in 1830 (Russian Museum). "A Nun's Dream" was once in the collection of Princess Maria Tenisheva, the founder of the famous Ta-lashkino artisanal workshops, while "A Young Girl's Dream before Dawn" belonged to Count Sergei Sheremetev.

That said, Bryullov was often criticized for his frivolity and "balancing" on the edge of good taste. It was probably compositions like these that Alexander Ivanov had in mind when he wrote to the Society for Support of Artists on the eve of Bryullov's departure from Italy: "The Italian, weary and exhausted by everything exalted and pleasing, is now looking for simple, fashionable toys..."13.

  1. Currently, 13 of those sheets are held at the Russian Museum. One sepia drawing, "Old Man Sitting on a Rock", was transferred to the Cultural and Historical Museum in Yerevan, Armenia.
  2. The drawings were originally in the collection of the heirs of Kirill Naryshkin. In 1825 in Rome Naryshkin commissioned two paintings from Bryullov; in 1827 the artist painted a double watercolour portrait of Naryshkin and his wife.
  3. Lyaskovskaya, O.A. "Karl Bryullov". Moscow & Leningrad, 1940, pp. 139-140.
  4. Atsarkina, E.N. "Karl Pavlovich Bryullov. His Life and Oeuvre". Moscow, 1963, pp. 494-495.
  5. Gavrilova, E.I. 'Re-attribution and more accurate dating of two sets of works by K.P. Bryullov' in "Russian Graphics of the 18th-first half of the 19th century. New Materials". Leningrad, 1984, pp. 146-162.
  6. Borisovskaya, N.A., Semyonova, N.Y. "Karl Bryullov. The Italian Album. From the Collection of Stolichny Bank". Moscow, 1994. Scientific analysis of these drawings and watercolours was performed at the Russian Museum. For more information, see: "Karl Bryullov: Celebrated and Unknown"/Almanac. Ed. 330. St. Petersburg, 2012, pp. 113-114.
  7. In 1832 Bryullov painted a double portrait of Count Wittgenstein's children (Schillingsfurst castle, Germany); it is also likely that he designed the funerary monument for Stefania's grave.
  8. Borisovskaya, N.A., Semyonova, N.Y. "Karl Bryullov. The Italian Album. From the Collection of Stolichny Bank". Moscow, 1994, p. 78.
  9. Alexandrova, N.I. "Russian Drawings of the 18th-First Half of the 19th Centuries. Catalogue Raisonne". Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts. Moscow, 2004, p. 154, #274.
  10. Bryullov is referring to his copy of Rafael's fresco "The School of Athens" at the Vatican, which is now housed at the Russian Academy of Fine Arts Museum.
  11. Quoted from the article by Petrova, Ye.N. 'Do we know Bryullov the Draftsman?, in "Karl Bryullov: Celebrated and Unknown" exhibition catalogue. Russian Museum, St. Petersburg, 2012, p.8.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ivanov, Alexander Andreevich. "His Life and Correspondence. 1806-1858". St. Petersburg, 1880, p. 88.





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