Wright's artistic interests varied widely, ranging from portraiture and scientific topics in his early "candlelight" period to popular subjects, romantic history, literature, and landscapes in later years. This painting dates from the end of Wright's career. It is a romantic and fantastic blend of his memories of Italy and the countryside of his native Derby.
In the foreground, a rustic figure sits by the side of a rock-strewn path; he is a small, lonely human presence in this broad and arresting view of nature. A path winds above him to the villas in the hills, while to the right the land gives way to a rolling meadow, a still lake, and a distant mountain. In the background great masses of earth rise dramatically, culminating in a long silhouette against the pale blue sky.
Wright's unorthodox use of color in the cliffs has an expressionistic quality that seems to foreshadow the works of later artists. At a distance from the painting the sharp contrast between the colors emphasizes the geometry of the forms. Viewed closer, the forms begin to flatten out into abstract patterns. While Wright's vision of nature is romantic in its use of light and color and in its pervasive nostalgic mood, it is also classical in its purity of line and form and in its controlled and balanced composition.
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
lower left: I Wright / Pinx / 1790
Mr. Mills, Yorkshire. A.J. Bentley, by 1831; by descent to John Bentley, Esq. [1797-1879], Birch House, near Bolton, Lancashire, and Portland Place, London; his estate; (sale, Christie, Manson & Woods, London, 15 May 1886, no. 71); purchased by F.B. Benedict Nicolson, London, until 1960. (Durlacher Brothers, London); sold 11 April 1960 to (Thomas Agnew & Sons, London); sold 6 July 1960 to Paul Mellon, Upperville, Virginia; gift 1983 to NGA.
- Pictures by Italian, Spanish, Flemish, Dutch and English Masters, Royal Manchester Institution, 1831, no. 145, as Italian Scene - Convent of St. Cosimata.
- Painting in England, 1700-1850: Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, 1963, no. 39, repro., pl. 222.
- Joseph Wright of Derby: A Selection of Paintings from the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1969-1970, no. 15, repro.
- Gifts to the Nation: Selected Acquisitions from the Collections of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1986, unnumbered checklist
- Joseph Wright of Derby, Tate Gallery, London; Grand Palais, Paris; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1990, no. 119, color repro.
- Glorious Nature: British Landscape Painting, 1750-1850, Denver Art Museum, 1993-1994, no. 22, repro.
- An Enduring Legacy: Masterpieces from the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1999-2000, no cat.
The canvas is plain woven; it has been lined. The ground is a smooth proprietary white. The painting is executed in a sophisticated range of techniques. The design has been blocked in with rich fluid paint; this is blended wet into wet in the sky, with thicker whites adding texture and definition. In the foreground and middle ground the base color is modified by a complex series of fluid opaque layers and glazes, with the final detail applied in bright, thick paint; in the mountains the base color of solid, opaque purplish lavender is modified by thin layers of green and bluish gray. The paint surface has been abraded in the mountain on the left side, and has been flattened during lining. There are scattered retouches in the sky. Otherwise the painting is in good condition. The moderately thick synthetic varnish has not discolored.
- Nicolson, Benedict. Joseph Wright of Derby: Painter of Light. 2 vols. London, 1968: 1:92, 260, no. 292; 2:pl. 311.
- Cummings, Frederick. "Joseph Wright at the National Gallery." The Art Quarterly 34 (1971): 477, fig. 7.
- European Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1985: 440, 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: 350-352, repro. 351.
- National Gallery of Art, Washington. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1992: 153, repro.
- Hand, John Oliver. National Gallery of Art: Master Paintings from the Collection. Washington and New York, 2004: 281, no. 228, color repro.