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Pierre-Jacques Volaire, le Chevalier Volaire (Toulon 1729-1802 Naples)
PROPERTY FROM A PRIVATE COLLECTION 
Pierre-Jacques Volaire, le Chevalier Volaire (Toulon 1729-1802 Naples)

Vesuvius erupting at night seen from the Atrio del Cavallo, with elegant onlookers, a view of Portici and Capri beyond

Details
Pierre-Jacques Volaire, le Chevalier Volaire (Toulon 1729-1802 Naples)
Vesuvius erupting at night seen from the Atrio del Cavallo, with elegant onlookers, a view of Portici and Capri beyond
inscribed, signed and dated 'Eruption Du Mont Vesuve du 14. may 1771. peinte sur le lieu par le che Volaire:' (lower right)
oil on canvas
31 x 46¼ in. (78.8 x 177.5 cm.)
Provenance
Anonymous sale; Sotheby's, New York, 30 May 1991, lot 82.
Exhibited
Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum, and Pittsburgh, Carnegie Museum of Art, Light! The Industrial Age, 1750-1900, 2001, p. 79, illustrated.

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Alexis Ashot
Alexis Ashot

Lot Essay

The almost continuous eruptions of Vesuvius in the second half of the eighteenth century had a profound impact on western perceptions of nature for much of the following century. The sustained volcanic activity was one of the most spectacular natural phenomena of the Age of Enlightenment, prompting a considerable degree of fascination, particularly in France and England, with vulcanology. One of the most important exponents of these studies was Sir William Hamilton, whose preeminence in the field derived at least in part from his ability to study the eruptions at firsthand in the late 1760s and throughout the 1770s: 'On a sudden, about noon, I heard a violent noise within the mountain, and at a [spot] about a quarter of a mile off the place where I stood, the mountain split and with much noise, from this new mouth a fountain of liquid fire shot up many feet high, and then like a torrent, rolled on directly towards us.' (from William Hamilton's Campi Phlegraei, describing the eruption of Vesuvius, 19 October 1767).

The scientific fascination with the volcano was concurrent with the high degree of interest in Vesuvius that had been inspired in the 1740s by the first excavations at the archaeological sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum. These factors were compounded by the development of the concept of the Sublime, derived from Classical philosophical views traditionally ascribed to Longinus in the first century A.D. A volcanic eruption epitomised the vast, superhuman and awe-inspiring qualities associated with this notion, and in turn meant that such a phenomenon was of great artistic interest. A depiction of Vesuvius erupting became as much a key souvenir of an Italian sojourn as views of Naples and its surrounding landscape, which had previously been supplied by artists such as Antonio Joli, Carlo Bonavia and Joseph Vernet.

The first known reference to Pierre-Jacques Volaire dates from 1755 when he was documented (as 'le fils') working on the restoration of paintings in Toulon Cathedral. The arrival of Vernet in Toulon in September 1754 prompted one of the greatest developments in Volaire's career, as Vernet seems to have taken him on as an assistant at this time. From him, Volaire learned the sharp sense of observation, lively technique and care in the design and lighting of a painting that is evident in the present work. Volaire was Vernet's most inventive follower, not content to copy his master's well-tried formulae but prepared to adapt to new aesthetic criteria.

By 1764 Volaire was in Rome, where he worked until the end of the decade, producing landscapes and seascapes in the manner of Vernet, such as the Landscape with a Waterfall in the Musée d'Art, Toulon, or the Shipwreck of 1765 in the Nationalmuseum, Stockholm. These Roman works are close to Vernet in theme and style, although Volaire liked to depict his figures in lively silhouettes against the light: a penchant that clearly continued throughout his career and is exemplified in this work. It is thought that Volaire arrived in Naples in 1769, presumably drawn there as a landscapist, and was fortunate to have been present at one of the most dramatic periods in the history of Vesuvius's activity. As such, although not the first artist to depict the subject, he soon established himself as the preeminent specialist in the field, influencing subsequent depictors of the same scene.

This view of the eruption of 1771 represents Vesuvius as it would have been seen from across the Atrio del Cavallo, with the rooftops of Portici (from which Sir William Hamilton could view the eruptions, from his villa) and Torre del Greco above the shore, and the island of Capri in the distance, across the Bay of Naples. The volcanic activity of the Spring of 1771 began at 4 o'clock in the afternoon of 1 May, with lava pouring from a fracture of the cone towards the Vallone dell'Arena for eight days. On 9 May at midnight, a new lava flow began which branched, on the 12th, towards Portici and Torre del Greco in the south-west, as depicted here. There was continuous strombolian activity at the cone (characterized by the intermittent explosion or fountaining of basaltic lava from a single vent or crater, the lava fragments generally consisting of partially molten volcanic bombs that become rounded as they fly through the air) and the lava continued to flow until the end of May, by which time it was also heading towards Boscoreale in the south-east; from 15 May until November, ash rained down causing damage to cultivated land.

One must allow some license with Volaire's inscription on this picture: he was indeed an eye-witness to the eruption and did presumably make some sketches of the scene 'sur le lieu'. Indeed, in 1774 Bergeret de Grandcourt made a tour of Italy with Jean-Honoré Fragonard, and recorded in his diary that during an excursion to the rim of the crater he met 'a painter called M. Volaire, supremely skilled in rendering the horror of Vesuvius'. (He even went on to commission a painting from Volaire as a result - Paris, Caisse Nationale des Monuments Historiques et des Sites, Ministère de la Culture, Direction du Patrimonie.) However, it is not likely that on this occasion Volaire actually painted his finished canvas en plein air during the eruption - it is presumably to his personal presence and his sketches that he therefore refers.

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