Richard Wilson began as a portraitist, although he also produced a few topographical paintings early in his career. During his stay in Italy in the 1750s he turned his attention exclusively to depictions of arcadian landscape and developed a personal style that freed him from the realistic constraints of his earlier works. Indeed, Italy's golden Mediterranean light and the ancient ruins that evoked the glory of its classical past affected Wilson long after his return to London in 1756. Like his contemporary Reynolds, Wilson sought to elevate the status of his genre of painting through the systematic application of classical standards.
In this landscape the artist draws on his memories of the Italian countryside as well as on his imagination to create a richly detailed panorama, suffused with a quiet and evocative mood. On a massive pedestal stands the ruin of a statue of a lion with a globe under its paw, symbolizing the inevitability of death and decay. The pagan hermit reading at the base of the statue and the two Christian monks to the left, their church highlighted in a clearing in the woods, seem to share a common hope of discovering answers to the mysteries of life.
More information on this painting can be found in the Gallery publication British Paintings of the Sixteenth through Nineteenth Centuries, which is available as a free PDF https://www.nga.gov/content/dam/ngaweb/research/publications/pdfs/british-paintings-16th-19th-centuries.pdf
Perhaps (Maddox Street Gallery, London), in 1828. Mr. Gray, Ilkley, Yorkshire, after whose death it was bought 1839 by (John Chaplin, London); probably purchased ca. 1839 by Andrew Fountaine [1808-1873], Narford Hall, King's Lynn, Norfolk; by descent to Andrew Fountaine [b. 1918]; (sale, Christie, Manson & Woods, London, 23 June 1972, no. 57); purchased by (Thos. Agnew & Sons, London) for Paul Mellon, Upperville, Virginia; gift 1983 to NGA.
- Gifts to the Nation: Selected Acquisitions from the Collections of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1986, unnumbered checklist
The medium-weight canvas is plain woven; it has been lined. The ground is light gray; it is smoothly applied and masks the weave of the canvas. The painting is executed smoothly and opaquely, with thin brown and green glazes in the details of the landscape, thick textured paint in the trees, and low impasto in the highlights; the middle ground of the landscape on the right has been left unfinished, with the ground clearly visible in parts; the crude dark brown glazes in the center and right foreground, which help to establish the solid character of the forms, are original. The painting was cleaned, lined, and revarnished in London in 1973. It is in good condition. Linear cracks throughout the paint have been retouched; otherwise loss and damage are minimal. The thin natural resin varnish has not discolored.
- European Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1985: 438, repro.
- Hayes, John. British Paintings of the Sixteenth through Nineteenth Centuries. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1992: 336-339, color repro. 337.
- National Gallery of Art, Washington. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1992: 145, repro.