Wilson was born in Penegoes, near Machynlleth, Montgomeryshire, in 1713 or 1714 (the exact year remains uncertain), the third son of the seven children of John Wilson and Alice Wynne. He received a sound classical education and, having early shown an enthusiasm for drawing, was placed in 1729 as a pupil with Thomas Wright, an indifferent portraitist and professional copyist in London, with whom he stayed for six years. Nothing is certainly known of his first eight or nine years in independent practice as a portraitist; his first recorded portrait dates from 1744. He was patronized by the Lytteltons and between 1747 and 1750 was living in the house on the south side of Covent Garden formerly occupied by Samuel Scott. He also painted landscapes of Welsh scenes and views in and around London, of which the earliest is dated 1737.
Wilson traveled to Italy in 1750 and was befriended in Venice by the British consul, Joseph Smith, and by Francesco Zuccarelli, who encouraged his propensity for landscape painting; after a year or so he went to Rome with William Lock, a young man on the Grand Tour, arriving there in January 1752. Finally persuaded by Claude Joseph Vernet to devote himself to landscape, he settled in Rome for five years or more, the sketches he made in the Alban Hills and around Naples providing him with a storehouse of ideas and compositions which laid the foundations of his later career. Lord Dartmouth gave him his most important commission, for sixty-eight large finished drawings of Italian views.
Wilson arrived back in England in 1757 or 1758 and established himself on the Great Piazza, Covent Garden; he did not resume portraiture but, according to his apprentice William Hodges, "soon attained the highest reputation" in what was in the eighteenth century the less remunerative field of landscape painting. He took in a number of pupils, among them Thomas Jones and Joseph Farington. He was a founding member of the Society of Artists in 1759 and of the Royal Academy of Arts in 1768, exhibiting regularly every year (with the exception of 1773) from 1760 to 1780.
Wilson became increasingly intemperate in later years; he was forced to move several times due to straitened circumstances, and from about 1775 his practice declined noticably. He received an income of fifty pounds a year through his appointment in 1776 as librarian of the Royal Academy in succession to Hayman. By 1781 he was described, in a letter from Ozias Humphry to Francis Towne, as "utterly incapable." He had never married, though he seems to have had a son, and in 1781 he left London to stay with his cousin, Catherine Jones, at Colomendy, Denbighsire, where he died on 15 May 1782.
[Hayes, John. British Paintings of the Sixteenth through Nineteenth Centuries. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1992: 333-334.]
Wright, Thomas. Some Account of the Life of Richard Wilson, Esq. R.A.. London, 1824.
Ford, Sir Brinsley. The Drawings of Richard Wilson. London, 1951.
Constable, W. G. Richard Wilson. London, 1953.
Hayes, John. Richard Wilson. (The Masters series, no. 57). Paulton, near Bristol, 1966.
Solkin, David. Richard Wilson: The Landscape of Reaction. Exh. cat. Tate Gallery, London; National Museum of Wales, Cardiff; Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut. London, 1982.
Hayes, John. British Paintings of the Sixteenth through Nineteenth Centuries. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1992: 333-334.