Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg (French, 1740–1812),
The Smugglers Return
oil on canvas, 29½ x 42 in., 74.3 x 106.7 cm
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Wiesenberger, 1960.299
Born and trained in France, de Loutherbourg traveled to London in 1771 in search of commissions. So successful was he that he remained in England for the rest of his life, becoming an important figure in the evolution of British landscape painting. His first work was creating scenery for David Garrick’s theater in Drury Lane, where his innovative practices in scene changing and lighting gained him an international reputation as a stage designer. De Loutherbourg also made an impact as a landscape painter at the Royal Academy exhibitions, becoming an RA in 1781. In his later work, he turned more to history painting, including battle scenes and biblical subjects.
The Smugglers Return reflects de Loutherbourg’s great sense of the theatrical. Here, in a raging storm, a number of men struggle against the surf to bring in their dismasted boat with its valuable cargo. Rather than being dwarfed by the power of the elements, the individuals are clearly depicted and their emotions easily identified: from the backs of the straining men in the water to the frantic family reunion on the shore. De Loutherbourg seems to view the smugglers sympathetically, and the “outlaw” was a favorite theme of Romantic artists. In this case, however, the lawbreakers were a common fact of eighteenth-century English life. Far from being the activity of a few men at night, smuggling was widespread and involved all strata of society.