Saturday, April 18, 2015

An Art History Analysis of Pierre-Jacques Volaire's "The Eruption of Mt. Vesuvius"

"The Eruption of Mt. Vesuvius" by Pierre-Jacques Volaire
Pierre-Jacques Volaire rocked the world with his exposition “The Eruption of Mt. Vesuvius.” Noble Englishmen partaking in the Grand Tour would flock to Naples, Italy to purchase his work and acquire a taste of the history and culture surrounding the destructful volcano. With this, Volaire made a name for himself. Though many called his artwork repetitive and akin to that of his mentor’s, Claude-Joseph Vernet, Volaire found a niche by implementing Romanticism and Baroque styles into grand landscape paintings. He used setting and current events to propel his art into the global spotlight; the painting at hand was painted in 1777, but he witnessed the eruption of Mount Vesuvius firsthand in 1771.

When people talk of Vesuvius, the first image or idea conjured is immediately that of Pompeii and the devastating eruption of 79 A.D. which took the lives of over 2,000 inhabitants. As Mary Bagley from LifeScience observes, Vesuvius is one of the world’s most dangerous active volcanoes; also, Europe’s only remaining mainland volcano. Even after the eruption two thousand years ago, people moved back to the affected area and set up camp once again. Old Pompeii was left in utter ruins, but cities such as Naples and Portici grew their metropolitan areas through the centuries. It is believed Vesuvius fully erupts or has minor eruptions every two centuries, with the last grand eruption taking place during the Second World War in 1944. Tremors were felt in Naples in 1999; the last time such
"Mediterranean Harbor Scene" by Pierre-Jacques Volaire
tremors were felt, an eruption occurred just fifteen years later. Thus, due to all the people in this enclosed area overshadowed by the monstrous volcano, Vesuvius is not by any means a laughing stock. Many wonder why so many people decide to live their lives on the line, living in fear of the next possible catastrophe. Citizens merely respond, “It makes you value your day, and your life, even further.”

Much of Italian culture and society has been shaped by the sequence of events of its respective time. Take the Roman Empire, for instance. Culture was determined by the vastness of the empire and the assimilation of other societies into the dominant order. Then again in fascist Mussolini-Italy, just over half a century ago. Pride for the state was at an all time high, but the needs of the nation created animosity between the state and the people. Italian culture is defined by its achievements and failures, as are most modern day societies. Of course, the various eruptions by Mount Vesuvius are no exception. As mentioned by the Nature article of J. Logan Lobley, the geological findings and historical observations surrounding Vesuvius do not always match up. The depictions of the volcano’s history and grandeur do not serve it justice - and keep in mind this article was written in 1889, a century after the publication of Volaire’s artistic expertise. This proves just how much cloudiness surrounds the matter of all work on Vesuvius. Though societies during times of eruption were shaken by the utter destruction of nature, many scientists cannot sum up the actual magnitude of this volcano’s history as Volaire has.

Volaire indubitably lived in a time where civilization feared nature. Landscape paintings of this type, such as Vernet’s “A Shipwreck in Stormy Seas,” depict the powerful forces of nature. As
"A Shipwreck in Stormy Seas" by Claude-Joseph Vernet
researchers failed to place Vesuvius in it’s own category of social changes, Volaire found a way to make his painting exemplify the turmoil of his time. Slyly implementing the Baroque style, which was slowly dying around this time, Volaire gives glamour to the idea in fear of nature. Through the Enlightenment, many of these styles transitioned to Romanticism, which focused on inspiration and beautification of reality. Baroque was very religion centred as the movement originated from the Catholic church’s attempt to maintain faith despite Protestant reforms; thus, “fear of nature” could easily be translated to “fear of God.” The implementation of Romanticism juxtaposes this, however, as the chaos unfolding in the foreground, with people rushing to escape from the vicinity, and the destruction of the eruption in the background paint a stark reality when compared to the tranquility seen in the water just a few brushes away. The article by Mariamilani emphasises the relationship between Baroque and Romanticism, especially in eighteenth-century Rome, as intellectuality and primacy of the individual defeated celestial doctrines. People of this time still held reservations on the Christian God’s wrath, certainly. But the fear of nature for what it is, for nature in its whole, pure self, painted with vibrato on one side and dullness on the other proves just how much the events of the 1771 eruption took an effect on society.

The National Gallery provides context for how Claude-Joseph Vernet influenced Pierre-Jacques Volaire through the development of Volaire’s artistic growth. Vernet was known for his topographical and landscape paintings, much of which Volaire acquired from him. Vernet was admitted to to the Academy, a royal order in France which recruits illustrious painters to work for the King. He spent his years mastering the arts of tempest and moonlit scenes, which he undeniably passed down to Volaire, as well. The Getty illustrates just how much Volaire learned from Vernet, which is pretty much anything and everything Vernet had to offer. In fact, “Volaire was strongly influenced by Vernet's sharp observation and his interest in perfect finish and the effects of moonlight and precise, artificial light.” However, his skills did not match those of his master - Volaire was not even given admittance into the French Academy. The apprenticed artist was blessed
"Eruption of Vesuvius by Moonlight" by Pierre-Jacques Volaire
as he came from a talented family of painters in Toulon, France. Once he became a master of landscapes utilising Romantic ideals, especially after the appraisal for his work on Vesuvius, Volaire was known worldwide for his accomplishments. Affluent individuals traveling to Naples in order to get a taste for the historical and ancient culture would find themselves marbling at Volaire’s work. With the “The Eruption of Mt. Vesuvius,” Volaire brought the old tale of Pompeii back to life through the events of his present time. The implementation of Enlightenment ideology only intensified this and allowed for a more modern take on Vesuvius.

Without a doubt, the painting at hand borrows a lot of different key ideas of the century in which it
was painted. It instills a sense of destruction and chaos; magma and ashes can be seen erupting from the volcano, scattering all over the land and burning everything in its path. The town at the base of the volcano, obviously alluding to Pompeii, can easily be perceived to be Naples or Portici. In the foreground, people frantically cross over the bridge on foot or horse-drawn carriages to escape the wrath of Mount Vesuvius. These individuals sport garments inspired by the Italian Renaissance as well as the Enlightenment; the horses pictured carry plenty of riches and goods, symbolizing the mass fortunes of the era. The ships offset to the right of the painting provide a sense of oddity amidst all of the destruction occurring around them. The water seems serene for the most part, even at peace when compared to everything occurring on land. Volaire does a great job at creating focal points as the bottom corners of the painting appear dark and mysterious while the the top transitions from dark shades of grey to lighter shades. This provides great contrast to the brightness of the volcano’s lava and magma, which can be seen as a bright orange, thus providing the focal point of the painting. The magma creeping down the mountainside creates fright and suspense unrivaled from the odd calmness in the still waters. ArtNC quotes Hester Thrale in what perfectly describes the view the audience of this painting has: “This amazing mountain continues to exhibit such various scenes of sublimity and beauty at exactly the distance one would choose to observe it from—a distance which almost admits examination and certainly excludes immediate fear.” The bright, burning magma casts light on the foreground and creates eerie shadows of the citizens fleeing from the mountain. The moon provides magnificent lighting on the water, allowing us to see a bit more into the setting of relaxed nature. The
"Mediterranean Night" by Calude-Joseph Vernet
level of detail in this painting is to marvel upon. The actions taking place - the chaos and the tranquility - truly bring out the central life theme of evil living within the most peaceful of places.

Through the interplay of dramatic Baroque styles, spiritual Romanticism, and historical context, Pierre-Jacque Volaire managed to draft a painting worth admiration. He places Vesuvius’ ancient history into his modern day context, thus excelling in bringing out the beauty in what is at times deemed unknown. Just like the old tale of Pompeii, “The Eruption of Mt. Vesuvius” is a work set to survive through many, many more ages.

Works Cited

ArtNC. "Work of Art: the Eruption of Mt. Vesuvius." ArtNC. N.p., n.d. Web.

Bagley, Mary. "Mount Vesuvius & Pompeii: Facts & History." LiveScience. N.p., 13 Mar. 2013. Web. <>.

Lobley, J. L. "Mount Vesuvius." Nature 41.1053 (1889): 195. Web.

Mariamilani. "Baroque Rome." Mariamilani. N.p., n.d. Web. <>.

. N.p., n.d. Web. <>.

The Getty. "Pierre-Jacques Volaire." The Getty. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Mar.
2015. <>.

The National Gallery. "Claude-Joseph Vernet." The National Gallery. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Mar. 2015. <>.

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