The brigands who inhabited the mountains outside of Rome were known for both their criminal ways and their profound religious devotion. Here, a young couple prays at a roadside shrine—not only for the husband’s success but for the health of the wife, who is noticeably pregnant. Robert was one of a number of artists working in Rome, including Achille-Etna Michallon, François-Joseph Navez, and Jean-Victor Schnetz, who popularized such scenes in the 1820s. When Robert exhibited subjects like this one at the Salon of 1824, one critic noted that he had blurred the boundary between history and genre painting—but praised the naturalism of his figures.
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.)
[Asher Ethan Miller 2013]
Inscription: Signed, dated, and inscribed (lower right): Lld Robert Rome. 1824.
sale, Sotheby's, Monaco, June 21, 1986, no. 292, to Whitney; Wheelock Whitney III, New York (from 1986)
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Path of Nature: French Paintings from the Wheelock Whitney Collection, 1785–1850," January 22–April 21, 2013, unnumbered cat. (fig. 32).
Asher Ethan Miller. "The Path of Nature: French Paintings from the Wheelock Whitney Collection, 1785–1850." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 70 (Winter 2013), pp. 28, 47, fig. 32 (color).
Formerly visible on the back of the canvas (prior to lining) is an inscription (photo in Department of European Paintings files): [N...?] Bottot.
There are two variants of this composition:
Brigand en prière avec sa femme, ca. 1823 (whereabouts unknown). In a letter to his family dated October 25, 1822, the painter described this subject as one that he was painting for prince Aldobrandini (presumably Francesco Borghese Aldobrandini [1776–1839], who, after the death of his brother Francesco [1775–1832], would take over the Borghese surname). According to Aurèle Robert’s inventory, this was one of two paintings sold to Aldobrandini in 1823. See Pierre Gassier, Léopold Robert, Neuchâtel, 1983, p. 303, no. 38, ill. (reproductive drawing by Aurèle Robert).
Brigand et sa femme en prières, costume de Monticelli, ca. 1823 (whereabouts unknown). Recorded by Aurèle Robert as having been sold to Lord Honson, England, either in 1823 or 1824. See Gassier 1983, p. 303, no. 40, ill. (reproductive drawing by Aurèle Robert).