Fiery and flamboyant, Salvator Rosa was a poet, actor, and artist in the Italian Baroque period who inspired succeeding generations of Romantics. He trained in Naples but spent most of his career in Rome and Florence.
While Rosa created strong historical and religious paintings, it is his unconventional landscapes that are his true legacy and express his innovative abilities most graphically. Beautifully painted with rich, subtle colours and strong lighting that produces startling highlights amidst deep shadows, Rosa’s landscapes embody drama.
He did not paint idyllic, benign landscapes, he instead created wild, brooding scenes peopled with small figures of shepherds, brigands, seamen, and soldiers, made vulnerable in settings of looming rocks and splintered trees. It is a setting that inspires strong feelings of unease, apprehension and an innate fear of untamed nature.
These two paintings were part of a gift of 21 Rosa paintings from Joseph Allen Smith, of South Carolina, to the fledgling Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. The American vessel transporting the collection from Italy was captured by a British warship off the coast of Nova Scotia during the War of 1812 and brought as a prize of war to the port of Halifax.
A petition for the release the collection was made on behalf of the Academy and came before the Honourable Sir Alexander Croke, Justice of the Court of the Vice-Admiralty in Halifax, in 1813. Croke, a poet and amateur artist, made the historic judgement that works of art should not be considered spoils of war, but “are admitted amongst all civilized nations, as forming an exception to the severe rights of warfare, and as entitled to favour and protection … as the property of mankind at large, and as belonging to the common interests of the whole species.” As a result of his precedent-making decision, the entire collection was forwarded to Philadelphia at the end of war.
After World War II, the US Department of State was involved with the repatriation of art looted during that conflict, as well as drafting a convention to protect cultural property during times of war. Croke’s enlightened and generous legal precedent came to the attention of the Department and was viewed as an ethical model for the treatment of works of art during times of conflict. To honour Croke’s decision these two paintings were returned to Halifax as a gift. In 1952, Cabot Coville, United States Consul General, acting on behalf of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, presented these two fine examples of Rosa’s art to the Nova Scotia Museum of Fine Arts.