Between 1830 and 1842, John Scarlett Davis travelled extensively through France, the Low Countries, Italy and Germany. Renowned as both a watercolourist and painter in oils, Davis excelled in depicting detailed interiors, typically of churches and picture galleries, within which small-scale representations of paintings are usually clearly identifiable. Some of Davis’ pictures almost accurately represented the hang of specific galleries and exhibitions, like his Interior of the British Institution Gallery painted in 1829 (New Haven, Yale Center for British Art). Others, however, grouped famous paintings in European collections, which Davis would have seen and studied on his European tour, into imaginary galleries, often placed within capriccio buildings.
This large work appears to have been such a representation. Most of the paintings included in this fictive gallery form part of the collection of the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Lille, including Rubens’ Magdalene in Ecstasy, Decent from the Cross and Saint Francis receiveing the Christ Child, as well as Van Dyck’s Miracle of the Mule and Crucifixion. Other pictures included on the gallery walls, however, are found in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, like van Dyck’s Rest on the Flight into Egypt and his Portrait of Hendrick Liberti (the prime version of which was recently sold in these Rooms, 2 December 2014, lot 13). All of the paintings depicted on the main wall in Davis’ gallery are after works by Rubens and his circle, including pictures by Artus Wolffort (the Saint Jerome in the Wilderness to the left of the composition), Thomas Willeboirts (The Coronation of the Virgin in the upper right) and Jan Boeckhorst (The Martyrdom of St Maurice and his companions, to the right of Van Dyck’s Crucifixion). The two groups of figures are dressed in seventeenth-century costume, which likewise seems to specifically reference a Rubensian idiom, especially the figure of the woman in the centre of the composition. Davis, in fact, produced a number of historicising gallery scenes, which, including the present work, feature small figures dressed not in contemporary clothing but in fashions of the seventeenth century (see for example, the capriccio view of the Mauritshuis; Private collection, Christie’s, Edinburgh, 25 October 1995, lot 924). Others functioned more like historical genre paintings, like his Rembrandt’s Studio (1841; Hereford, Hereford Museum and Art Gallery) which shows the master seated at his easel surrounded by some of his most famous works.