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Renowned master of the historical genre, Makovskii was famous for his large-scale scenes from Russian medieval history and enchantingly beautiful portraits. His paintings, which were extremely popular with the public, presented highly romanticized images of seventeenth-century Russia, and resembled an elaborate opera set.
The current painting, based on the subjects from antiquities, is an unusual occurrence in the artist's oeuvre. Subjects from Greek and Roman history gained enormous popularity at the turn of the last century and K. Makovskii was always quick to follow the latest fashionable trend. In 1904 he painted his last large-scale painting called Death of Petronius (Fig. 1) based on the novel Quo Vadis? written by Henryk Sienkiewicz. The enormously popular novel depicts the persecution of the Christians in the first-century Rome during the reign of the Emperor Nero. One of the characters is the celebrated poet Petronius, reputed author of the Satyricon. A favorite of Emperor Nero, he was considered an authority on all matters of taste. Soon his position made him an object of envy. Wrongfully accused of treason, he did not wait for his sentence but instead committed suicide. Makovskii's monumental painting, which he completed in 1904, depicts an elegant scene of the last feast given by the famous poet. Surrounded by his guests, musicians, and dancers, Petronius is reclining on his bed watching his concubine Aevnika who is slowly dying in his arms. According to ancient sources, Petronius made incisions in his veins, bound them up, opening them periodically. While slowly dying, he conversed with friends, listened to music performances, light poetry and playful verses. He dined and indulged himself in sleep such that death, though forced on him, might have a natural appearance. Guests wearing floral wreaths enjoyed wine and exotic food, and were entertained by groups of musicians.
The current work is a life-size study of a group of dancers seen in the left corner of the completed painting. Three beautiful maidens seem to be completely absorbed in their dance. One is playing a tambourine; the other two are helping each other to get closer to the center of the room where Petronius is slowly drifting to his tragic end. The facial expressions of the female dancers express curiosity and horror at the same time. A much smaller sketch showing the central scene and only two musicians is known to exist. It shows how carefully Makovskii re-worked his original composition in order to enhance the dramatic impact of the painting. The scene resembles the elaborate opera set with the main action unfolding in the foreground. Beautifully painted and almost entirely finished, the current study is the only surviving testament of what the completed painting must have looked like since its present whereabouts is unknown.