The fall of the Napoleonic empire left the young Swiss painter Léopold Robert doubly dispossessed. Not only was his mentor, the history painter Jacques Louis David, forced to leave Paris in exile, but the loss of his French citizenship made him ineligible to compete for the coveted Prix de Rome. He finally did reach Rome in July 1818, first achieving some success with meticulously rendered scenes of daily life painted in emulation of François-Marius Granet and Franz Ludwig Catel. But he had an epiphany in July 1819, when he witnessed a spectacle that was to change the course of his career: the parading through Rome and incarceration by Papal troops of vanquished brigands and their families from the nearby redoubt of Sonnino. Less than a year later, in June 1819, Robert set up a studio in the prison known as Termini, which was attached to the basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli (the former Baths of Diocletian). There he sketched the prisoners in their distinctive costumes, adapting their individualized features in figure paintings that conjured their curious mix of criminal ways and profound religious devotion. This subject would become a sensation throughout Europe; other principal exponents of the genre were Achille-Etna Michallon, François-Joseph Navez, Jean-Victor Schnetz, and Guillaume Bodinier.
This is one of three variants of a subject Robert painted in 1822–24: a young brigand couple praying at a roadside shrine. The other two are known through reproductive drawings made by the artist’s brother, Aurèle Robert, as are the names of their first owners [see Notes], but they are unlocated today. Conversely, there is no known reproductive drawing of the present work, whose early ownership history is unknown. It is the only version in which the wife is shown pregnant, and thus the object of the couple’s prayers is not only the husband’s success but the health of the wife.
Also unknown is which of the three canvases was exhibited at the Salon of 1824, where a total of six paintings by Robert were on view. "Le brigand en prière avec sa femme" is listed under no. 1452 in the catalogue but there is no mention of the painting in the Salon archives. That it found a buyer seems indisputable—that is, unless it was lent by a collector, which is unlikely as the catalogue lists no owner’s name. Less than three weeks after the Salon opened on August 25, the collector Charles Marcotte wrote to the artist, "The paintings you are showing this year are remarkable and I have sought information to know if there are any still available. I learned the contrary with [a mixture of] pleasure and regret; my regrets will lessen if the request I make to you is accepted." (Letter to Robert, September 15, 1824; Pierre Gassier with the collaboration of Maryse Schmidt-Surdez, eds., Léopold Robert-Marcotte d’Argenteuil: Correspondance, 1824–1835, Neuchâtel, 2005, p. 1, under letter no. 1M.)
[2013; adapted from Miller 2013]