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Creator(s): Karl Pavlovich Briullov (Artist)

On view in: Pavilion

About this object

Russian painter Karl Briullov’s (1799-1852) portrait of his intimate friend, Russian Countess Julia Samoilova (1803-1875), is perhaps the artist’s most important work in a museum outside of Russia. Painted shortly after his monumental history painting Last Day of Pompeii of 1832 (State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg), the portrait marked the pinnacle of Briullov’s long sojourn in Italy and endured as one of his many tributes to the beauty and friendship of the countess. Samoilova became a longtime resident of Italy after she incurred the displeasure of Emperor Nicholas I as a result of her extravagant social life. The wealthy countess entertained the intellectual elite of her day, including the Russian writers Ivan Turgenev and Vasily Zhukovsky and the Italian composers Gaetano Donizetti, Giuseppe Verdi, and Giovanni Pacini. To Briullov, she epitomized femininity and beauty and he portrayed her in a scene of joyful welcome and fashionable elegance.

The portrait features Julia Samoilova with her foster daughter, Giovannina Pacini, and a young Black boy in a richly decorated room. The backdrop is covered with red velvet drapery, a piece of which rests on a sofa also covered in red fabric. Above the furniture is the edge of a gilded frame of a large painting, which reveals a portion of Briullov’s Last Day of Pompeii. An open door, partially covered by sheer lace floor-length curtains, is visible in the background on the left. The door opens onto a balcony overlooking a landscape with a large lake. Above the door is a gothic style frame with a family crest. Entering the room, Countess Samoilova wears a lavish dress of blue satin with short puffed sleeves and deep lace flounces. A gold belt studded with cabochons marks her waist. A tiara is perched on Samoilova's thick black curls and a necklace in the archeological revival style encircles her neck. With her left arm, she embraces her young foster daughter Giovannina. As she advances, her red cashmere shawl slides off her right arm, only to be scooped up by the Black domestic servant who hovers in her wake. A small spaniel that has placed its forepaws on the dress welcomes Samoilova. Beginning in 1828, Briullov featured a Black servant in at least four paintings, likely inspired by a young model whose identity and status remain unknown. Briullov probably met his model while in Italy where, by the time of this painting, slavery had been abolished in most states. In the portrait of Samoilova, the Black boy was conceivably included in the painting to enhance the dynamic composition and add an element of “Orientalism.” It incorporates exotic and racist stereotypes, such as the gold collar and lavish costume, and portrays the boy in a subservient role, ignored as a human being. The presence of the boy, and especially his collar, although in gold to match his mistress’ precious belt, allude to the slave trade in Western Europe and the existence of Black servants in aristocratic circles. Since the seventeenth century, such figures were often featured in Western art and design alongside European aristocrats and rulers to emphasize the wealth and social standing of their master. Dark skin was also used to contrast with the sitter’s whiteness, recognized during the period as a symbol of wealth and beauty. Inspired by this historic iconography, Briullov also incorporated another trend in his composition by pairing the Black servant with a dog, both positioned at the same social level emphasizing the racial inequalities of the era.

Object name:
Made from:
Oil on canvas
Made in:
Date made:
268.2 x 280.7 x 214.6 cm (105 9/16 x 110 1/2 x 84 1/2 in.)

Detailed information for this item

Catalog number:
Signature marks:
SIGNATURE C: Brulloff At lower left, in black Latin characters.
Credit line:
Bequest of Marjorie Merriweather Post, 1973