Mobile menu
Sir David Wilkie (1785-1841)

I Pifferari Signed and dated 1827

RCIN 405861

Your share link is...


David Wilkie was one of the most successful painters of the Regency period and was greatly encouraged by the Regent. Born in Fife, trained in Edinburgh, Wilkie settled in London in 1805 and began regularly exhibiting at the Royal Academy small scale scenes of everyday life. At this time old master genre painting was hugely popular and expensive, as is demonstrated by the many examples of the work of Teniers and van Ostade (Adriaen and Isaac) collected at this time by George IV. Wilkie consciously emulated these low-life scenes, charging similarly high prices, but the meaning of his work shifts with the tide of British culture in the later eighteenth century towards a more celebratory (some would say sentimental) treatment of ordinary people. Teniers painted ‘peasants’; Wilkie painted the ‘the salt of the earth’. Wilkie’s royal career involved succeeding Raeburn as Limner to the King in Scotland in 1823 and Lawrence as Principal Painter in Ordinary to the King in 1830; he remained in these positions until his death, although Queen Victoria disliked his work.

In July 1825 Wilkie set off for an extended visit to the continent, taking in Italy and Spain and even a visit to Delacroix in Paris. George IV acquired six paintings (OM 1177-2, 405861, 405091-4 and 405096) from Wilkie following his return to London in 1828; this one cost 150 guineas. This group of two pairs and two ‘singletons’ has considerable coherence and is characteristic of this period of art in general. This is the age during which Spain was ‘discovered’ by writers and artists as was the Italy of modern life as opposed ancient remains, which is the subject of this pair (OM 1177-8, 405861 and 405096). This was also a period during which the priests, ceremonies and superstitions of the Catholic Church appeared in a good light, by comparison with the godless rationalism of the recently-overthrown armies of the French Revolution. Wilkie’s paintings all depict picturesque life in Italy and Spain, in which faith plays a central part; many depict the actual struggle against Napoleon’s invaders. Wilkie also changed his style during this period, taking the oil-sketches of Rubens as his model, rather than the genre paintings of Teniers, to create something grander, sketchier and more rhetorical.

This is one of a pair of paintings linked by the theme of pilgrimage, though the pilgrims here have been somewhat marginalised. The central kneeling pilgrim (with the characteristic hat) forms the link between them and the other heroes of this scene - the Pifferari (OM 1177, 405861). Nothing summed up picturesque modern Italy as well as the Pifferari; described by Hector Berlioz (1803-69) in 1832: ‘These are strolling musicians who, towards Christmas, come down from the mountains in groups of four or five, armed with bagpipes and ‘pifferi’ (a sort of oboe), to play in homage before statues of the Madonna. They are generally dressed in large brown woolen coats and the pointed hats that brigands sport, and their whole appearance is instinct with a kind of mystic savagery that is most striking’. He admits that close to the music is ‘overpoweringly loud, but at a certain distance the effect of this strange ensemble of instruments is haunting and few are unmoved by it’. Wilkie saw them in 1825 making a sound which reminded him of Scottish bag-pipes and serenading the Virgin ‘at this season previous to Christmas, in imitation of the shepherds of old, who announced the birth of the Messiah’.

Signed and dated: 'D Wilkie Roma 1827'