John Hamilton Mortimer was known in his own lifetime as the ‘English Salvator’ and consciously modelled his own life and works on the seventeenth century Italian painter, Salvator Rosa.
The critic Allan Cunningham noted on seeing Mortimer’s self-portrait, now known only from an etching, that he: ‘was fond of the wild, the savage, and the wonderful; and it was his pleasure…to imagine himself a chief of banditti.’ This beautifully executed sheet encapsulates Mortimer’s interest in Rosa and his myth, showing fisherman pulling ashore the corpse of a man.
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, are supposed also to have been taken from life.’ Such stories of Rosa’s life as a banditti fuelled the admiration for his prints and paintings, which, as Gilpin articulated, were seen as the embodiment of contemporary conceptions of the sublime. Rosa’s association with banditti was entirely fabricated, but it was a construct which had great appeal to Mortimer and his contemporaries.
The present drawing recalls the violent myths associated with Masaniello, showing fisherman hauling ashore their catch, the corpse of a man. Mortimer regularly showed depicted fisherman in his drawings, but this is a singular depiction of this subject-matter. The use of pen and wash suggests that the present drawing dates from early in Mortimer’s career.