Cogniet painted three versions of this subject. The primary version (private collection, New York) was executed by or in 1825 as a pendant to a painting by Achille-Etna Michallon depicting an Italian brigand, Mazzocchi (ca. 1820–22, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Orléans). They were reproduced as a pair of engravings published in 1826. Both canvases formed part of the collection of modern French art assembled by the discriminating Parisian amateur Louis Joseph Auguste Coutan (ca. 1772–1830). He was undoubtedly Cogniet’s patron, although details of the commission remain unknown. The artist painted the second version (private collection, New York) more or less simultaneously with the first; the collector baron de Jassaud lent it to the influential exhibition "Ouvrages de peinture exposés au profit des Grecs," held at Galerie Lebrun, Paris, from May 17 until July 3, 1826.
Following the completion of the two 1825 versions of The Italian Brigand’s Wife (and unconstrained by the proportions of Mazzocchi) Cogniet reimagined his composition in the form it takes in the Metropolitan sketch, as a somewhat conventionalized independent picture. There are notable differences in the details: in the Coutan and Jassaud pictures, the looted trunk displays its contents to the viewer and beside it a postillion boot emerges from a suitcase, while in the Metropolitan version the trunk is oriented toward the figure and the ghoulish boot is omitted. Also, in the reduced version the colors of the figure’s costume have changed and a dagger and powder flask have been added to the still life on the embankment behind her. Perhaps more significant, the figure here is smaller in relation to her surroundings and the landscape is more fully developed, if only marginally, suggesting that the artist may have considered working the sketch up into yet another, considerably larger version, perhaps for exhibition at the Salon.
Cogniet and Michallon had been intimate friends during a formative period of nearly four years spent in Italy together as pensionnaires of the French Academy in Rome. The former won the Grand Prix de Rome in the category of history painting in 1817, when the latter won the inaugural Prix de Rome for historical landscape, and they remained close until Michallon’s untimely death in 1822. Cogniet returned to Paris the same year and went on to enjoy a long and successful career as a Romantic painter of a largely academic stripe. The original Michallon-Cogniet pendants surfaced in the estate sale of a later owner, the Parisian collector Mainnemare, on February 21, 1843. Cogniet acquired Mazzocchi either at the auction or soon afterward, affording him the opportunity to pair it on his own walls with the Metropolitan Brigand’s Wife—albeit somewhat awkwardly, owing to the difference in scale. He sold this third version in 1872 (see Provenance), but retained the Michallon until he died.
[2013; adapted from Miller 2013]