John Hamilton Mortimer was known in his own lifetime as the ‘English Salvator’ and consciously modelled his life and works on the seventeenth-century Italian painter, Salvator Rosa. This previously unpublished painting eloquently demonstrates Mortimer’s debt to Rosa. In its precision and delicacy of handling, as well as in its elegant composition, this impressive painting demonstrates Mortimer’s abilities as a painter.
Salvator Rosa had a remarkable impact upon British painters during the eighteenth century, in terms of both his life and work. Biographers routinely cast Rosa as an outlaw, who had fought in the rebellion led by the Neapolitan fisherman Masaniello against Spanish rule in 1647. William Gilpin writing in 1768 observed: ‘we are told, he spent the early part of his life in a troop of banditti; and that the rocky and desolate scenes, in which he was accustomed to take refuge, furnished him with those romantic ideas in landskip, of which he is exceedingly fond…His Robbers, as his detached figures are commonly called [the Figurine series], are supposed also to have been taken from life.’
Mortimer has encapsulated the idea of outlaw fishermen in the present painting; a group of armed banditti stand around contemplating their catch recalling the stories of Rosa and Masaniello. The present composition is known in at least two versions. The first was probably commissioned by Richard Payne Knight and was exhibited by Mortimer at the Society of Arts in 1777. The present work differs from the Payne Knight version; in it Mortimer has added the figure of a woman in the background, based on Guercino’s Persian Sibyl. Beautifully painted and preserved in outstanding condition, the painting is an important addition to Mortimer’s oeuvre.
The appeal of banditti as a subject-matter is attested to by the volume of paintings, drawings and etchings of this sort exhibited by Mortimer during the 1770s. Far more numerous than his named history paintings, the non-descript compositions fueled the imagination of early Romantic audiences; whilst the very real fear of encountering outlaws whilst travelling in Italy, and even Britain, inflected them with a sense of sublimity.