Thursday, April 16, 2015

An In Depth Analysis of Pierre-Jacques Volaire’s "The Eruption of Mt. Vesuvius"

Pierre-Jacques Volaire’s, "The Eruption of Mt. Vesuvius", is a product of romantic landscape painting. The work depicts the horror of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius as it destroys the roman city of Pompeii. The Eruption of Mt. Vesuvius depicts the historical event of Mt. Vesuvius’ 79 A.D. eruption, embodies and displays the romantic school of art, showcases the dramatic expressions found in baroque art, and contributes to the social discussion of how different perspectives formulate different interpretations of the same events.

"Mount Vesuvius in Eruption" by William Turner
The first step to understanding what is happening in this work is to evaluate and build a basic understanding of the historical event which "The Eruption of Mt. Vesuvius" is depicting. Mount Vesuvius is an active volcano that is near what is today Naples, Italy. At noon on August 24th, 79 A.D., Mount Vesuvius erupted, sending a cloud of ash, gases, and debris towering into the sky. According to Pliny, a man writing an account of the eruption from the nearby town of Misenum, the plume was enormous. Pliny goes on to say, “It resembled a (Mediterranean) pine more than any other tree. Like a very high tree the cloud went high and expanded in different branches…. sometimes white, sometimes dark and stained by the sustained sand and ashes” (Bagley). Early the next morning, a cloud of toxic gas, ash, lava, and rock rolled into Pompeii. The cloud instantly burnt the lungs of the citizens and buried them where they lay. The cloud was so quick that it sealed in the city and the bodies of its inhabitants. Because of this, the excavated city of Pompeii is extremely well preserved. Also, plaster casts have been made from cavities in the soil that are in the shape of the trapped people. As Pliny and his mother fled from the destruction of their own city, Pliny writes of “black and horrible clouds, broken by sinuous shapes of flaming wind” (Bagley). These are no doubt these are the same “horrible clouds” that engulfed the city of Pompeii.

Clearing Up—Coast of Sicily
by Andreas Achenbach
During the 18th century, there was a growing appreciation for the beauty and a fear of nature. This developed into the Romantic School of Art. The school was mainly founded on the principle that nature is huge, powerful, and wild; man should be wary and afraid of the natural world. However, there was a certain quality of beauty in this terror. For example, natural catastrophes such as floods, storms, earthquakes, fires, avalanches, and erupting volcanoes inspire fear, but at the same time, these disasters demonstrated the raw beauty in natural chaos. Much of Romanticism paintings would take the form of landscapes in the visual arts (Hibberd). The first romantic paintings appeared in England during the 1760’s. The majority to these paintings however depicted wild landscapes and natural occurrences such as violent storms (“Romanticism”). Volaire was a relatively influential artist who used this kind of style. Volaire was known for painting volcanic activity; more specifically, Volaire painted Mount Vesuvius erupting. That is to say, Volaire painted more than one Mount Vesuvius eruption painting. But, lets examine the romantic components presented in Volaire’s "The Eruption of Mt. Vesuvius". First off, the Volcano is the focus of the piece, and it is erupting at night. Volaire has vividly painted the fire being belched from the volcano top and streaming down the sides, illuminating the dark night around it. Secondly, the contrast of the cool night and the hot volcanic fire gives the painting a deeper beauty rather than if the volcano was erupting during the day. Next, lets zoom in to pay close attention to what is happening at the base of the volcano; at the base is the actual city of Pompeii. Notice how the lava flawlessly seems to gently ooze and cover the city, first by filling the streets, and secondly by lapping over the roofs as the flow becomes more thick. Finally, notice how the ash cloud is painted. At the center of action, the eruption, the plume seems to be hostile and inflamed; it seems to be almost electric and excited. By contrast the cloud seems to become cooler and gentler, almost like a cool wispy blanket as it moves over the water and towards the moon. These four components of "The Eruption of Mt. Vesuvius" categorize the piece as an example of romanticism. The contrasts and details both inspire terror, as one imagines the great volcano belching its fiery contents, and serene beauty, as the lava moves gracefully over the town and cools over the calm and still bay. Volaire’s bold contrasts and artistic technique proved to influence other successful artists. The artists that were most influenced by Volaire’s style were British artist Joseph Wright and Austrian artist Michael Wutky (Hamilton).

"The Raising of the Cross"
by Peter Rubens
The artistic style of the 17th century was characterized by baroque painting (“Art”). However, Pierre-Jacques Volaire painted "The Eruption of Mt. Vesuvius" in 1777. Even though the painting was finished almost a century after the end of the widespread use of the baroque school, "The Eruption of Mt. Vesuvius" still has elements of this powerful school. For a painting to be considered Baroque, there must be an overly dramatic expression of deep and profound emotion. Figures in the works of art would adore deeply over exaggerated faces, usually in terror, agony, happiness, or depression. The school is most commonly associated with religious paintings which depict various stories from the bible in great emotional detail (“The Baroque”). Nevertheless, the movement spread to non-religious forums such as Volaire’s work. To see the baroque element of "The Eruption of Mt. Vesuvius", you have to examine the bottom of the painting. If you pay close attention to the people on the ramp heading to the docks, you can clearly see the Baroque elements at play. Along the ramp, we can clearly see different deep expressions of terror as citizens are fleeing with their hands raised and clothes flying behind them as the run for the ships. In addition to terror, we can see other people stopping to stare in amazement at the scene unfolding around them.

"The Eruption of Mt. Vesuvius" by Pierre-Jacques Volaire
When you look at Pierre- Jacques Volaire’s "The Eruption of Mt. Vesuvius", you can see that Volaire has incorporated the social discussion of differing viewpoints into his work. The conversation is that events can take on different meanings and significance depending on your experience. There are three perspectives used in this work: the citizens in close proximity and in the city of Pompeii, the people who are waiting to board ships at the harbor, and those people who are already on the ships. To those people close in proximity and in the city of Pompeii, there is no beauty in the eruption. From their perspective the eruption is their death, and they can see no beauty in this event. If you look closely at the gates of Pompeii, the blurry figures fleeing the city seem to be clamoring away as chaos ensues. For those who are experiencing misfortune, there is no beauty; they only see the destructive power of nature. What is interesting is the perspective of those who have fled Pompeii and are waiting to board ships. These people can see the beauty of nature, as they are at a distance; however, not to long ago they were running in complete panic from the ash cloud and lava. They are the ones who can truly grasp the idea of natures beauty and power. One way that you can tell this is by observing a solemn figure holding what resembles a scroll up in the air to the eruption.This figure is enjoying the beauty while remembering the feeling of fear that he had experienced earlier. Finally, the people on the ships have the polar opposite perspective of those people who are still in the city of Pompeii; these people are outside observers who are watching from safety. They most certainly understand that the lava is a terrifying and horrifying force, however they are most likely only seeing the raw beauty behind the eruption.

It is no wonder that Pierre- Jacques Volaire choose to paint the destruction of the City of Pompeii, Volaire was enamored with the beautiful violence of volcanoes. In fact, in 1764 Volaire moved to Naples, Italy and lived right across from Mount Vesuvius (Hamilton). Mount Vesuvius was the pinnacle of natural beauty and terror in the eyes of Volaire making it the perfect subject for his work in the Romantic school of art. Volaire used the destruction of the city of Pompeii, the sublimity and awesome power of nature, the drama of the baroque school, and the idea of differing perspectives to create his masterpiece, "The Eruption of Mt. Vesuvius".

Works Cited

"Art of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries in Naples." Art of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries in Naples. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, n.d. Web. 08 Apr. 2015. <>.

Bagley, Mary. "Mount Vesuvius & Pompeii: Facts & History." LiveScience. TechMedia Network, 13 Mar. 2013. Web. 08 Apr. 2015. <>.

Esaak, Shelley. "Romanticism - Romantic Art History." About Education., n.d. Web.
12 Apr. 2015. <>.

Esaak, Shelley. "The Baroque - Art History 101 Basics." About Education., n.d. Web. 12 Apr. 2015.

Hamilton, James. "The Lure of Volcanoes." History Today 60.7 (2010): 34-41. ProQuest. Web. 12 Apr. 2015.

Hibberd, Sarah. "Cherubini and the Revolutionary Sublime." Cambridge Opera Journal 24.3 (2012): 293-318. ProQuest. Web. 12 Apr. 2015.

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