The Russian son of an Italian sculptor, Bryullov studied at the Imperial Academy from 1815 to 1821 under the guidance of Andrei Ivanov (1772–1848). He settled in Rome between 1823 and 1824 and had major success with The Last Day of Pompeii, (1830–3; St. Petersburg, Russian State Museum), inspired by archaeological research, Pliny's account, and Pacini's opera (1825). The work reputedly moved Bulwer-Lytton to write his novel The Last Days of Pompeii (1834). A combination of Raphael's classicism (it includes references to the Fire in the Borgo), realistic accuracy, and melodramatic Romanticism, it was admired by Sir Walter Scott and exhibited to great acclaim in Rome, Milan, and Paris. Bryullov visited Greece, Turkey, and Asia Minor, returning to Russia in 1835 to become a professor. He undertook decorations for St. Isaac's Cathedral, St. Petersburg (1843–1847), and executed a huge historical subject, The Siege of Pskov by Stepan Batory in 1581 (1836–43; Moscow, Tretyakov Gallery). Bryullov was a gifted and psychologically incisive portraitist, as demonstrated by his Nestor Kukolnik (1836; Tretyakov Gallery). He returned to Rome in 1849.
Bryullov eroded the severity of academic classicism with a new and vital attention to the emotional possibilities of colour, becoming the first Russian artist to gain an international reputation.
Bryullov is represented in the following collections: The Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow; The Russian Museum, St. Petersburg; The Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, amongst others.