The subject is drawn from Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1820), chapter 31, in which the Norman knight Templar, Brian de Bois-Guilbert, escapes with his Saracen slave and the Jewish heroine Rebecca from the burning Torquilstone Castle, which had been set aflame by the elderly Ulrica. It is a reduced variant of a painting of 1828 (Wallace Collection, London) that Cogniet sold to the collector Jacques Laffitte; later that year Laffitte lent it to an exhibition held at Galerie Lebrun, Paris, and in 1831 he lent it to the official Salon.
There are significant differences in the details between the London and New York versions, the most notable of which is the omission of Ulrica in the latter work. Her role is critical to the narrative and she is present in a preparatory oil sketch (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Orléans), a watercolor version of the finished painting (Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine), and in the reproductive engraving (Salon of 1835). Other divergences are to be found among the figures’ costumes and accessories. For example, in the Wallace version Rebecca’s dress is pink and the skirt’s hem is embroidered with Hebrew characters, while in the Metropolitan version the dress is yellow with a simple blue hem. In the latter, tassles have been added to the white horse’s bridle and martingale and these are pink instead of blue. In the Metropolitan version, the Saracen’s tunic has a blue design on a yellow ground rather than blue with a red lining; his headcovering has also changed color.
A pentimento in the London picture suggests that the spear which appears in the lower right corner replaced what had been a bush; as a spear appears in the corresponding area of the Metropolitan painting, where there is no pentimento, it follows that this picture is a replica and not a study. These factors, considered together with its undocumented early history and what some observers have thought of as a certain miniaturist quality in the figures, have cast doubt on the authorship of this painting, which bears no visible signature (the canvas is lined).
Yet close examination of the painting by Museum conservator Charlotte Hale reveals qualities of technique and facture that point to this being an autograph work. Overall, the paint is handled with great precision, but in a very painterly manner. The scintillating impasto for details like the white horse’s mane and the white highlights on Rebecca’s clothes are handled with great fluency and virtuosity. To cite another example, the fire coming out of the windows in the tower was first laid in with brushy horizontal brown strokes for the tower, then gray for the smoke, and finally the impasted touches of red and yellow for the fire. Relative to the Wallace picture, the artist took liberties with other details which, in combination with the assuredness and freedom of execution tend to confirm that the hand at work is that of the artist himself and not a copyist (Examination Report, September 16, 2010, Department of European Paintings files).
[Asher Ethan Miller 2013]