Bandits' Scene - Bilbao Fine Arts Museum

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Bandits' Scene

Alenza, Leonardo

Madrid, 06/11/1807-Madrid, 30/06/1845

Oil on canvas

23.5 x 19 cm

Aª (bottom right hand corner)

c. 1844

Second quarter of the 19th century


Bequeathed by Laureano de Jado in 1927

Behind the modest earthen walls of a rural home in the middle of the countryside, bandits are attacking a poor peasant astride a mule. Even though the spoils may be meagre and the victim is a rather old man with no chance of defending himself, as one of them is rummaging in the shirt pocket, the other two, in a rough gesture, are threatening him with their knives to prevent him from putting up resistance. Yet another thug, lagging behind a bit, is keeping watch so his mates can work undisturbed, as the wretched prey sits still in resignation, waiting for the four hoodlums to finish their depredation.

From the end of the Peninsular War to the creation of the Civil Guard in the middle of 1844, more or less the date of this painting dates, the lack of safety on the roads and in rural areas, as well as around cities, was very fraught due to the presence of bandits and Carlist guerrillas who lived off their attacks on travellers and passers-by. Even though plenty of people innocently saw these attackers as the outcome of an unfair society when creating the romantic myth of Spain, and even believed them capable of redistributing the goods they stole among their less advantaged compatriots, others, like the artist who made this painting, showed the worst side of those who lived off of smuggling, theft, kidnapping, misdemeanours, and who even helped support and coerce on behalf of the local caciques, who somewhat covered their misdeeds in exchange. Certainly the former image won out, the one preferred by foreign travellers who had been clearly warned about the perils of roads in Isabelline Spain and especially the imminent presence of dangerous bandits and burglars, yet who threw themselves into their journeys perhaps eager to experience those adventures.

This work bears one of the artist's usual acronyms, although the quality of the painting is not on par with his other works conserved in the same collection in Bilbao. However, neither the solid drawing, with some academic influences inherited directly from Goya's Caprices, nor the refined, heavy, rich intonation of his hallmark works from the Dutch tradition can be readily recognised in this painting. Far from boasting the substantial execution with sheer strokes with which Alenza describes those scenes, the facture here is quite summary, and sometimes, as in the clothing of the figures in the foreground, the description is unusually rudimentary for an artist with his training in drawing. However, his authorship seems reasonable if we bear in mind the elementary formulas that he repeatedly used in other works. For example, the figures' facial features are shaped with small superimposed blotches of colours, and the complex, well-defined foreshortening of the two bandits in the foreground are typical of his works. So is the execution of the sky and the elements in the background of the painting, and especially the recognisable scheme of modest earthen walls framing the event, which confirm this Madrid-based artist's authorship. (Carlos G. Navarro)

Selected bibliography

  • Plasencia, Antonio. Catálogo de las obras de pintura y escultura del Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao. Bilbao, Imprenta Provincial, 1932. p. 45, n° cat. 167. (Con el título Escena de bandidos, y atribuido a Leonardo Alenza)
  • Lasterra, Crisanto de. Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao : catálogo descriptivo : sección de arte antiguo. Bilbao, Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao, 1969. p. 3, n° cat. 1. (Con el título Escena de bandidos, y atribuido a Leonardo Alenza Nieto)
  • De Goya a Gauguin : el siglo XIX en el Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao [Cat. exp.]. Bilbao, Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao, 2008. pp. 150-152, n° cat. 16.