Bryullov was born into an artistic family and showed an outstanding talent for drawing at an early age. He studied at the Imperial Academy of Arts from 1809 to 1822 and graduated with a first-class gold medal. He was sponsored on a journey to Italy, along with his brother, by the Society for the Encouragement of Arts in 1822. He remained there for thirteen years, working in Milan, Naples and Rome, where he painted his most famous work, The Last Day of Pompeii (Russian Museum, St. Petersburg). This dramatic and powerful piece, combining Renaissance Classicism with realism and intensity of emotion, was inspired by archaeological research, Pliny’s (23-79) account, and Pacini’s (1796-1867) opera of 1825 based on the historical event. The painting gained widespread admiration in Rome and throughout Europe, was praised by Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) and was also the subject of a poem by Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837). A contemporary claimed that, ‘the last day of Pompeii became the first day of Russian painting’.
Having cemented his reputation as one of the finest European painters of his day, Bryullov triumphantly returned to St. Petersburg in 1835, where he enjoyed a privileged place among the aristocracy and intellectual elite of the city.
Bryullov quickly became professor of the Imperial Academy of Arts and was also a professor of the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence, in addition to contributing to exhibitions in Rome, Milan and Paris. With his health deteriorating Bryullov left Russia for Madeira in 1849. He spent the last three years of his life in Rome and was buried in the Cimitero degli Inglesi.