After Rome and Venice, Naples had always been a favorite stop on the itinerary of every European Grand Tourist, beloved for its scenic countryside and the sun-drenched beauty of its celebrated bay. But by the mid-18th century, the newly unearthed archeological sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum and the dramatic increase in volcanic eruptions at Mount Vesuvius made Naples a must-see destination for cultured and wealthy travelers.
Vesuvius had erupted many times since the initial explosion devastated Pompeii and Herculaneum in 79 AD; however, the year 1750 marked the beginning of a renewed era of regular volcanic activity after a long period of relative calm. The public imagination was captivated by the violence of these remarkable eruptions and demand for visual representations of the volcano ensued, initially among scientists, explorers and fledgling volcanologists. The eruptions were interpreted as having philosophical dimensions as well as scientific and aesthetic ramifications, feeding as they did discussions of 'the Sublime,' the concept that gave name to man's experience of a sense of awe before the power and vastness of nature.
It was the Chevalier Volaire who became the quintessential painter of Vesuvius, turning his attention almost exclusively to the subject after 1769, when he is thought to have arrived in Naples. Born in Toulon into a family of painters, Volaire was introduced to Joseph Vernet in 1754 when the famous marine painter arrived in Toulon to paint the port city for his series of royal commissions, The Ports of France. Vernet enlisted Volaire as an assistant on the project, and he continued working in the master's studio for eight years, until he struck out on his own in 1764, moving to Rome where he spent the next five years producing landscapes and marines in the style of Vernet.
Volaire was an eyewitness to more than one major eruption and he promoted his paintings as accurately transmitting these events as he saw them. As Emilie Beck Saiello has confirmed (with the assistance of volcanologist Giovanni Ricciardi of L'Osservatorio Vesuviano), the present painting depicts the great eruption of 1771, which began at 4:00 in the afternoon of 1 May 1771, with lava pouring from a fracture of the cone towards the Vallone dell'Arena for eight days. On 9 May a new lava flow began which branched, on 12 May, toward the southwest. There was continuous lava flow until the end of the month, by which time it was headed toward the southeast, and damaging ash fell on the region until November. Volaire's painting recreated the eruption from the Atrio del Cavallo, and his view includes recognizable sites and monuments including the Hermitage SS. Salvatore and the Sorrentine Peninsula, the islands of Capri, Ischia and Procida (then a royal game reserve), and the gulfs of Naples and Pozzuoli; nevertheless, the ways in which they are configured are mostly imaginary.
If Volaire has not been concerned with accurate topography, he has been rigorous in his attempt to authentically recreate the experience of standing in the midst of this awesome pyroclastic explosion. His startling palette of gold, lemon, crimson, scarlet and orange creates a sensation of fiery lava so effectively one can almost feel the heat, especially when it is contrasted to the cold, clear moon and pale, silvery moonlight that falls across the Bay of Naples. Dramatically silhouetted before the spectacle, he poses figures who observe in awe as fire shoots into the sky and scalding lava snakes its way past them. Still, these humans do not flee, but instead stop to contemplate the event, sensitive to and aware of the ineffable power of nature, in that heightened state of the Sublime that comes to men fortunate enough to observe nature's pyrotechnics from a safe and sheltered distance.
E. Beck Saiello, Pierre Jacques Volaire 1729-1799 dit le Chevalier Volaire, Paris, 2010, no. P66, pp. 228-229, illustrated.
PROPERTY OF A EUROPEAN COLLECTOR
Private collection, Paris.
Anonymous sale; Sotheby's, Monaco, 30 June 1995, lot 43.
with Piero Corsini, Inc. - Maison d'Art, as of 2000.
Anonymous sale; Christie's, London, 8 July 2005, lot 105 (£146,320).