WILKIE, Sir David
(b. 1785, Cults, Fife, d. 1841, off Malta)

The Defence of Saragossa

Oil on canvas, 94 x 141 cm
Royal Collection, Windsor

The artist had a distinguished career within royal circles, succeeding Sir Henry Raeburn as Limner to George IV for Scotland in 1823 and Sir Thomas Lawrence as Principal Painter to the king in 1830. He held this second post during the reigns of William IV and Queen Victoria.

The Defence of Saragossa forms part of a group of four paintings purchased by George IV in 1829-30 and still in the Royal Collection. The other paintings are The Spanish Posada: a Guerilla Council of War, The Guerilla's Departure and The Guerilla's Return.

The four paintings illustrate a decisive moment in the development of Wilkie's style. His early reputation had been based on genre pictures, mainly of scenes from Scottish life painted in the tradition of Teniers or Ostade, but an extended visit to the Continent in 1825-8, prompted by illness and the need for fresh inspiration, enabled the artist to study the works of major European painters, encouraging him to undertake more expansive historical subjects such as The Defence of Saragossa. Here the bolder composition - conceived on a larger scale - the vigorous handling and fresher colouring are clearly evident. These new aspects of Wilkie's style were derived from his attentive examination of works by Titian, Rubens, Velázquez and Murillo while on the Continent and particularly in Spain.

The subjects of the four pictures were inspired by the Spanish insurrection against Napoleon's occupying force. The Spanish defiance of the French is a theme widely recorded in contemporary prose and poetry, partly as a result of the role played by the Duke of Wellington in the Peninsular War of 1808-14. Of the paintings by Wilkie three are imaginary, but The Defence of Saragossa is based on a specific incident when the French laid siege to the city from June to August 1808. The composition depicts the Spanish guerilla leader, Don Jose Rebolado Palafox y Melci (1775-1847), and the Augustinian friar, Father Consolacion, who together have aimed the gun on the French column at the Convent of Santa Engracia, near the Portillo Gate. The moment shown is that when Agostina Zaragoza, the wife of the gunner dying in the lower left corner, seizes the lighted match and fires the gun at the encroaching forces. Wilkie was able to study the head of Palafox from life while he was in Madrid (Palafox was also painted by Goya [Madrid, Prado]). The priest, Boggiero, another hero of the Spanish resistance, is seen writing a dispatch on the left.

Wilkie also discussed his ideas for these pictures with Delacroix in Paris on his return journey from Spain. Indeed, The Defence of Saragossa has been described by one writer as 'this country's answer to Delacroix's Liberty at the Barricades'. The heroine of the picture, known thenceforth as the Maid of Saragossa, became a celebrity in Europe, and Byron extols her heroism in the first canto of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (stanzas 54-9).