By descent to the artist's brother George Melville;
The artist's sister Minni Elliot;
By descent to her daughter, Miss Elliot;
Miss Elliot's sale, Edinburgh, Dowell's, July 1968;
Fine Art Society;
On loan to the National Gallery of Scotland 1998-2003;
Arthur Melville travelled to Spain early in 1892 with his friend the like-minded painter Frank Brangwyn. They travelled as far north as Pamluna in the foothills of the Pyrenees and took the morning train to Milagro on the banks of the Ebro. Melville described the landscape seen from the train in his journal; 'through long shadows, cold blue thrown by tall poplar trees.' (Agnes Ethel MacKay, Arthur Melville, Scottish Impressionist 1855-1904, 1951, p. 84). These same shadows of poplars appear in The Contrabandista, the most important picture inspired by this trip, and indeed one of the most important pictures he ever painted. The fact that it is painted in oil is testimony to the importance it held in his oeuvre that rather than painting in his preferred medium of watercolour he chose to paint the composition in oil, on a fairly large scale. The painting echoes the work of his travelling companion but as Brangwyn was a young man at this time and still heavily influenced by the Newlyn school of painters, it seems that the bold bravura and bright colouring in The Contrabandista were Melville's invention and influenced Brangwyn, rather than the reverse. 'Both are colourists of the first order, both as virile and impetuous, and each shows in his own way a buoyant delight in grasping the essential points of an Eastern scene crowded with figures, or a phase of life elsewhere.' (Walter Shaw-Sparrow, Frank Brangwyn and his Work., 1910, p. 177) The title of Agnes MacKay's biography described Melville as a Scottish Impressionist and in The Contrabandista this assertion is very apparent.
After long hot days spent in the beautiful Spanish landscape Melville and Brangwyn returned to a canal boat they had hired to travel through the country and were regaled around the fire by their guide, José Rincon with stories of bandits and robbers. José kept a loaded rifle, a stiletto and a revolver at his side at all times to protect them from thieves and the 'contrabandistas' ('smugglers'). It was upon these tales and the sketches Melville made of the sun-baked landscapes in Spain, that he painted The Contrabandista upon his return to is studio, exhibiting a smaller version at the Glasgow Institute of Fine Arts later that year.
Although he painted primarily in watercolour, the work that Melville produced in oil was of equally superior quality. The Contrabandista is arguable the artist's chief painting in this medium and demonstrates the artists mastery of a technique of thick paint application which lamentably he did not choose to use frequently. An oil sketch for The Contrabandista is known (Sotheby's, 2 September 1998, lot 1407).
The loose brushwork in The Contrabandista and heightened colour add to the sense of romanticism that surrounds the work. William Hardie writes of the “decorative flatness” and “schematic definiteness” which correlates to the work of Monet, particularly in his series of poplars on the Epte, which is of a similar date. The Contrabandista is also comparable in subject and effect to George Henry's Galloway Landscape painted in 1889 (Glasgow Art Gallery and Museum) in which a herd of cattle are in place of the rather more romantic Spanish smugglers.
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