This picture, signed and dated 1781, is one of a series of 'banditti' pictures painted in England by the German-born painter Philip James (or Philippe-Jacques) de Loutherbourg. The focal point is a violent skirmish in a narrow mountain pass, with foot bandits attacking a stagecoach and outriders. Loutherbourg drew and painted banditti pictures throughout his career, exhibiting examples of this genre at the Royal Academy several times during the 1770s.
Loutherbourg's interest in banditti emerged during the mid 1760s when he made several engravings of soldier-banditti, after the Neapolitan artist, Salvator Rosa (1615-73). In folk legend banditti were conceived not merely as common robbers but as exotic outsiders, living in isolated groups in the mountains, rather akin to the legend of Robin Hood or outlaws of the American Wild West. The eighteenth-century vogue for banditti pictures was largely inspired by the rugged landscapes of Salvator Rosa, whose depictions of wild mountainscapes often featured violent subject matter. His popularity was further enhanced by the myth that Salvator had himself been a bandit. A second factor which presumably accounted for the increasing interest in banditti subjects was the popularity of the Grand Tour, as British and European travellers experienced at first hand the frisson of crossing dramatic mountainscapes, with the constant fear of robbery or attack.
In the 1600s bandits plagued Italy's roads, while seaports remained under threat from Turkish pirates. A century later the problem had receded although travellers were still advised to carry a sword and pistols, especially when crossing the borders between states, where bandits often lurked. Even so, by the 1780s, as one English traveller optimistically reported, Italy was not 'as is generally believed, a country of robbers and assassins. My countrymen travel there almost continually, and for thirty years past there has been but one accident which happened to them, or to any of their people; and even that ought not to be mentioned as an exception' (C. Hibbert, The Grand Tour, London 1987, p.29). By comparison, foreigners visiting England considered the roads there to be far more dangerous than anything encountered on the continent, highwaymen being 'as common as crows' (Hibbert, p.28).
Philip de Loutherbourg was a cosmopolitan figure. Born in Strasbourg, the son of a miniature painter, and raised in Paris, he later moved to the south of France, at which time he seems to have made several forays into Italy. However, while he had first-hand experience of the Italian countryside, he was not especially influenced by the traditions of Italian art, with the exception of Salvator's landscapes. Instead, he was drawn to the battle and hunting pieces of his contemporaries in Paris, notably Francesco Casanova (1727-1803), in whose studio he worked, as well as earlier artists, notably Adam Frans van der Meulen (1632-90), Francesco Simonini (1686-c.1755) and Charles Parrocel (1688-1752). Loutherbourg was a highly successful artist in France, exhibiting at the Académie Royale from 1763 and becoming a member in 1766.
In 1771 Loutherbourg abandoned France for England, where his work was already known to some extent. Here he quickly established himself as a scene painter and designer, working for the actor, David Garrick (1717-79), at Drury Lane. His flair for drama and spectacle was also used to good effect in large battle paintings, rugged mountainscapes and occasional banditti pictures. In 1781, the year in which he painted the present picture, he also launched his most original theatrical event, the so-called 'Eidophusikon', a diorama featuring dramatic effects of sunrises, storms and conflagrations. His inspiration was drawn principally from his imagination and from memory. While he was never to return to Europe, he continued to enjoy the wilds of nature, through travels to Derbyshire, Wales and the Lake District.
Tate Gallery Report 1967-8, 1968, p.45
Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg, RA, exhibition catalogue, The Iveagh Bequest, Kenwood, London 1973, no.16