The eruptions of Vesuvius were among the greatest spectacles of the second half of the eighteenth century. This incredible natural phenomenon fired the imagination of artists all over Europe, and Volaire’s numerous depictions of eruptions are among the most dramatic and theatrical of their kind. This impressive painting captures one of the main eruptions of Vesuvius that occurred in the 1770s. In the foreground, silhouetted figures observe the spectacle as the lava flow snakes past them. They represent some of the many tourists who – dangerously – explored Vesuvius in the eighteenth century to observe and study its eruptive activity up close.
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 second half of the eighteenth century, erupting several times from 1744 to 1761, and again in the 1770s, when this painting was made. During this period, visitors – among them writers, artists like Volaire, 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, satisfying a new scientific curiosity. In fact, Volaire is documented to have visited 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, changing the placement of figures, trees, and rocks, but always expressing awe at the power of nature.
Pierre-Jacques Volaire Vesuvius Erupting at Night 1770s © Compton Verney