Richard Wilson visited Lake Avernus to the north of Naples in 1752 and again in the spring of 1753 with his patron William Legge, 2nd Earl of Dartmouth (1731-1801). As a result of these visits he painted two pictures of the area, the present view of Lake Avernus and Lake Avernus and the Island of Capri (Tate N00304). Wilson, his pupils and copyists replicated both subjects on numerous occasions.
Lake Avernus lies in a volcanic region on the south-west coast of Italy, between Naples and Cumae. According to classical mythology the area, known as the Phlegraean Fields ('burning fields'), was associated with the Infernal Regions. Because of its location among dark, gloomy woods, and its reputed depth, Avernus was supposed to have been an entrance to the underworld. It was also situated close to the Grotto of Deiphobe, the Cumaean Sibyl, a celebrated prophetess, who, in Virgil's Aeneid, conducts the Trojan prince, Aeneas, to the underworld to meet the spirit of his deceased father.
Wilson, like many visitors, was undoubtedly attracted to Lake Avernus by its classical associations, as well as its immense natural beauty. In the present picture Wilson has organized the landscape surrounding lake according to the pictorial precepts of the seventeenth-century classical landscape painter, Claude Lorrain (1600-82), with a foreground of framing trees and figures, a middle ground containing the lake, and a horizon capped by distant mountains. The classical associations of the area are underpinned by the presence of the sarcophagus and tomb slab in the right foreground. By way of contrast the foreground figures appear to be simple fishermen, possibly selling their catch to the figure on their right, who has been erroneously identified in the past as a sibyl (see Constable, p.194).
In his catalogue of Wilson's oil paintings, published in 1953, W. G. Constable identified numerous versions of the subject by Wilson, including copies by pupils and followers, an indication that Wilson regarded it as one of his 'good breeders' (Constable, p.58). The exact date of the present picture is unknown, although a version of the subject (probably that shown in Constable, plate 69a) was engraved in reverse by James Roberts in 1765 as A View in Italy.
The picture was bequeathed to the National Gallery in 1854 by Richard and Catherine Jones Garnon, and transferred to the Tate Gallery in 1919.
M. Davies, National Gallery Catalogues: The British School, London 1946, p.176
W. G. Constable, Richard Wilson, London 1953, pp.194-5, plate 69b