Wagon Outside an Inn
Maker: Philip James de Loutherbourg , French, 1740 - 1812
Dimensions: 15 x 21 in. (38.1 x 53.3 cm.)
Medium: oil on canvas
Credit Line: The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens
Object Number: 79.10
Label Text: Although he was best known for dramatic and often cataclysmic paintings of battles, shipwrecks, and storms, de Loutherbourg also excelled at milder scenes of everyday rural life, generally executed on the modest scale of this painting. De Loutherbourg's depictions of the humble scenery and occupations of the English countryside were initially influenced by Dutch landscape painting, but he went on to develop a personal idiom in which faithful observation of natural effects was wedded to an increasingly romantic sensibility. It was his success in suggesting the reassuring simplicity of rural life, underpinned by authentic detail, that influenced artists such as George Morland, who emulated de Loutherbourg's approach to rustic subject matter. Here, the artist depicts a workaday scene outside a country inn. Under the sign of a red lion rampant, a team of horses drawing a covered wagon stands by while a man in a blue working shirt climbs a ladder leading up to the burgeoning load. At left a female servant and a male traveler on horseback engage in mild flirtation. Having provided the man with a glass of beer, the woman faces him boldly with one arm akimbo and the other resting on the neck of his horse. Scenes of pleasant toil intermingling with playful romance were standard elements of the popular mythology of rural English life, and became recurring features in representations of rustic inns. The repetition of such vignettes in de Loutherbourg's paintings calls attention to the fact that despite their appearance of authenticity, his rustic idylls were in fact as artificially staged as his designs for the theater. The landscape setting is no doubt equally contrived, but de Loutherbourg constructs it from convincingly observed natural effects, deployed to pictorial advantage. Warm golden light emanates from the right side of the canvas, where the sun, slung low in the sky, burnishes the foliage with an orange glow. The left side of the painting is characterized by contrasting cool blues, opening to a stream, beyond which lie distant woods and fields backed by low hills. As was his habit, de Loutherbourg painted on a pale ground in order to ensure the clarity and transparency of his colors and to produce the atmospheric effects he desired. In 1798 Joseph Farington reported the painter's concern that "dark brown grounds will appear through the colours and prevent the effect of air." Farington also noted de Loutherbourg's concern with maintaining the freshness of the paint surface, noting that he tried to finish as much as he could at one sitting and avoided "repeating his colours so as to load the Canvass." Although de Loutherbourg customarily painted and designed on a much grander scale, he was equally sensitive to the special requirements of small works of this kind. His father was a miniature painter, and throughout the present painting de Loutherbourg has employed a touch of equivalent delicacy, which appears particularly exquisite in the foliage. In the foreground his fine touch picks out such details as the rough, irregular texture of the broken ground, the scruffy vegetation, and the shattered tree trunk. It is a mark of de Loutherbourg's great versatility as an artist that small, sensitively realized scenes of rustic life such as this should have proven as influential in their way as the grand, pyrotechnical paintings that secured his fame.