The eruptions of Vesuvius were among the greatest spectacles of the second half of the eighteenth century. This extraordinary natural phenomenon fired the imagination of artists throughout Europe and Volaire’s many depictions of eruptions are among the most dramatic and theatrical of their kind. This large painting captures one of the eruptions of 1774 and shows Vesuvius from above the lava-filled valley. In the moonlit sea, the islands of Capri, Ischia, and Procida are depicted at closer than their natural distance. To the right is a panoramic view of the entire bay of Naples, from the Punta Campanella promontory on the left to the promontories of Posillipo and Pozzuoli on the far right, including a pearly profile of Castel dell’Ovo extending into the sea in the centre.
In the foreground, silhouetted figures and a dog observe the lava flow as it snakes past them, while others witness the irresistible event from a distance. These figures represent some of the many tourists who climbed Vesuvius in the eighteenth century to observe and study its activity up close. On the small promontory just right of centre, crosses can be seen, a reminder of the dangers of such natural occurrences, Below this, a burning villa is about to be consumed by the lava flow. The horizontal format of the painting allows the artist to explore the dramatic contrast between two different illuminations – the fiery heat of the lava on the left, and the cool, pale moonlight on the right. The sense of drama is accompanied by a feeling of contemplation. The figures are seen observing the phenomenon rather than fleeing from it. In this respect, the painting may be seen as a fine representation of the sublime: that particular sensitivity to and awareness of the ineffable power of nature.
The gentleman seated on the rock at the far left has often been identified as Sir William Hamilton, the keen amateur collector and British envoy to Naples from 1764, who was also a committed volcanologist. Hamilton was famous for his expeditions to the rim of the volcano and for a book illustrated by Pietro Fabris, entitled Campi Phlegraei. Observations on the volcanoes of the two Sicilies (1776). Another possibility is that the figure represents Volaire himself. An inscription on the reverse of the canvas records that it was painted sur le lieu (‘on the spot’), and behind the seated man is a servant holding a sword. This was the attribute of a chevalier and may be a reference to ‘chevalier Volaire’, as the artist was better known. In addition, Volaire is documented to have conducted a visit to Vesuvius in 1774 with the prominent collector Bergeret de Grandcourt. In his twenty years spent in Naples, Volaire painted various eruptions of Vesuvius from slightly different viewpoints, and almost always changed the placement of figures, trees, and rocks. However, with its broad panoramic sweep, this eruption by moonlight counts among the most ambitious and dramatic views by the artist. Volaire’s canvas was painted to hang as a pair with a view of the Solfatara, a volcanic crater near Pozzuoli. a Northern area of Naples. Although the identity of its first owner is not known, the Marquis de Ruolz-Monchal, Lord of Chatelard Francheville, a wealthy aristocrat and collector from Lyon, may well have purchased the painting directly from the artist, and it remained in his family until recently.
Thanks to the vivid eyewitness account of Pliny the Younger, Vesuvius is best known for the devastating eruption of 79 AD, which buried Herculaneum, Pompeii, and Stabiae. It has erupted around 36 times since 79 AD, with a long period of calm from 1139 until 1631, when a huge eruption heralded a new phase of activity. After a period of relative calm, the volcano underwent a period of intense activity in the eighteenth century, particularly in the second half, erupting several times from 1744 to 1761, and again in the 1770s. During this period, visitors – among them writers, artists, aristocrats, and Grand Tourists – flocked to Naples in great numbers, drawn not only by the newly rediscovered archaeological sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum, excavated in 1738 and 1748 respectively, but also by the many eruptions of Vesuvius, which satisfied a new scientific curiosity. The most recent eruption was in 1944, at which time the crater’s blowhole became blocked.
Inscribed on the reverse: Eruption du Mont Vésuve [peinte?] sure le lieu par le Ch. Volaire 1774.
Pierre-Jacques Volaire An Eruption of Vesuvius by Moonlight 1774 © Compton Verney