The Wallace Collection

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Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps: The Punishment of the Hooks (P345)
Treasure of the Month - October 2008

Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps: The Punishment of the Hooks (P345)

The 4th Marquess of Hertford, the father of Sir Richard Wallace and the principal collector of the paintings now in the Wallace Collection, reminded his main London agent Samuel Mawson on several occasions that he only liked ‘pleasing pictures’.

And indeed, as anyone walking round the Wallace Collection today will soon discover, there is a distinct emphasis in the character of his paintings: a preference for representations of life’s pleasures, for charm and sensuality, and for romantic historical and genre scenes in which violence plays no part. Yet it is never quite possible to pin the elusive 4th Marquess down – just occasionally he could surprise, as with his purchase of Ary Scheffer’s Francesca da Rimini (in the Nineteenth-Century Gallery) and perhaps above all with this picture – Decamps’s Punishment of the Hooks which he owned by 1848 and hung in his bedroom.

Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps (1803-60) paid only one visit to the Middle East and North Africa, in 1828, but it provided him with a rich source of subject matter for the rest of his career. He was the first major French artist to visit these lands after the Napoleonic wars and therefore one of the first to make ‘Orientalist’ scenes one of the principal features of nineteenth-century French painting. The 4th Marquess of Hertford, who visited Constantinople in 1829, acquired a fine group of Orientalist paintings, many of which can be seen in this gallery (with further examples upstairs in the Nineteenth-Century Gallery). They included fourteen further oils by Decamps and several by two other major Orientalist painters, Horace Vernet and Prosper Marilhat.

It is not known whether Decamps witnessed the scene in The Punishment of the Hooks during his visit to the Middle East, but the picture, which shows bound prisoners being thrown over the battlements on to large hooks, is characteristic of a particular vein of Orientalist painting – depictions of barbaric customs of a kind no longer practised in western Europe. Such images might on the one hand excite prurient interest in the European viewer while on the other they also reinforced a sense of cultural superiority. Something of this attitude was conveyed by the critic Charles Blanc in 1865 when he described the painting as ‘an incomparable image of Musulman barbarity’. It is known that Decamps was working on the painting in Rome in 1835 (and it is signed and dated, bottom left, Decamps/1837), but it was not until the Paris Salon of 1839 that it was publicly exhibited for the first time. Before Lord Hertford it was owned by collector, otherwise unknown, called Stephens.

We cannot know why Lord Hertford acquired the painting, but it is certainly one of the most important works of an artist of whom he was particularly fond. It would benefit from cleaning, but it is nevertheless not difficult to see why Charles Blanc went on to remark that ‘never did Decamps push further the energy of material imitation, the intensity of light and the strength of his figures’.

© Trustees of the Wallace Collection 2008.
Text by Stephen Duffy

Further Reading

  • Stephen Duffy and Jo Hedley, The Wallace Collection’s Pictures. A Complete Catalogue, London, The Wallace Collection, 2004.