Caravaggio and the Painters of the North
From 21 June to 18 September 2016
Agostino Brunias was an accomplished painter and architectural draftsman who worked for Robert Adam, but today he is best remembered for his West Indian views and colorful accounts of 18th century Caribbean civilization and culture. This pair of paintings is characteristic of his mature art in their charmingly varied and detailed account of the people, customs and costumes, as well as the landscape of the West Indies. Brunias painted pure landscapes (see, for example, his large River Valley on the Island of Dominica, in the Art Institute of Chicago), but most of his paintings include prominent figures. These often are arrayed in a frieze-like design to permit a thorough account of their appearance, activities and dress. In the first of the two paintings here under discussion he depicts elegantly dressed ladies promenading before a tropical landscape with a stream, washerwomen and bathers. Brunias takes obvious pains to record the brilliant white linens and striped dresses, jaunty headgear, and even a red umbrella, as the ladies parade in their finery. The second painting depicts a West Indian village with figures dancing and socializing before a panoramic view of a bay with a distant walled fort. The scene is bracketed on either side by trees, huts and stalls. Once again the brilliant linens and costumes are of special interest; note, for example, the richly attired black man with fashionable frock coat and striped vest, and his lady friend's pretty dress and what appears to be a powdered wig. He also makes much of the festive gaiety of the gathering and the dancers' energetic movements. Brunias not only recorded the customs and habits of the inhabitant but also the rich mix of races (European, African, Carib and Mulatto) who populated the islands. Although the present site has not been identified, Brunias painted actual towns and villages and their marketplaces, including The Linen Market in Santo Domingo, also preserved in the Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection. He favored series of paintings of different local people and professions, including a series of six paintings formerly owned by the Earl of Rosebery. Like the theme of women in their Sunday finery, the subject of washerwomen and bathers appealed to the artist and he treated it repeatedly; see, for example, Three Washerwomen, and its companion, Two West Indian Women Returning from Market, both also in the Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection.
Although Brunias' art is sometimes mistakenly and anachronistically regarded as "primitive" or naïve his images have long been prized by ethnographers and anthropologists for their probity and for their fidelity of observation.
Peter C. Sutton