The subject illustrated in the present picture is based upon the Calydonian boar hunt, an episode from a story told by the Latin poet, Ovid (43 B.C.-A.D.17) in his celebrated Metamorphoses, a series of fifteen poems based upon ancient folklore. In the eighth poem or 'Book' Ovid recounts the tale of two lovers, Meleager and Atalanta, who, with their companions, set out to hunt a wild boar, sent by the goddess Diana to ravage the countryside around the city of Calydon, in an act of revenge against Meleager's father, King Oeneus. Upon killing the boar, Meleager presents the head and skin of the boar to Atalanta. This act provokes a quarrel, in which Meleager kills his two uncles, before himself slowly wasting away. In the picture Wilson depicts the moment at which Meleager, seated upon horseback to the right, plunges his spear into the boar, following its wounding by Atalanta, situated at the far left of the picture with her companions. In the background, silhouetted by storm clouds is the city of Calydon.
The dramatic lighting of the picture, the rocky landscape and the turbulent cascade echo the violent subject matter depicted by Wilson. The composition is in turn indebted to the example of the seventeenth-century Neapolitan painter, Salvator Rosa (1615-73), who was then revered for his 'sublime', stormy landscapes, featuring cataclysms and violent death at the hands of robbers or 'banditti'.
The first recorded owner of the picture was the print-seller and publisher, Robert Sayer (active 1750-93), who had acquired the works by 1771, shortly after it is presumed to have been made. Sayer employed John Hamilton Mortimer (1740-79) to repaint the central group of figures (although not apparently the female group to the left). Mortimer, who was then known for his 'banditti' pictures featuring violent subject matter set in dramatic scenery, may have been drafted in to strengthen the existing figures and enhance the legibility of the narrative. This was especially important to Sayer since it was his intention to publish an engraving of the picture.
A first-hand account of the picture when it was in Mortimer's studio was provided by another artist, Faithful Christopher Pack (c.1759-1840). Mortimer told Pack that Wilson, who had heard that he had repainted the figures, visited his studio to inspect the results. Wilson was apparently 'much displeased', for although the figures themselves were good, Mortimer had 'not put them in the right places' and had 'broken the unity of effect' (see Simon 1979, p.438).
Although Mortimer's alterations clearly displeased Wilson, Sayer was unperturbed and published a print after Meleager and Atalanta in 1771. Later in the decade Sayer employed Mortimer once more to paint figures in another painting by Wilson which he owned, Apollo and the Seasons. Sayer published pendant prints after Meleager and Atalanta and Apollo and the Seasons in 1779 (the original paintings, as well as the prints, being identical in size). Both pictures had passed by 1794 to the etcher and caricaturist, James Sayer (1748-1823), who had them engraved once more. Around 1802 they were purchased by the banker, poet and noted connoisseur, Samuel Rogers (1763-1865) for 160 guineas. Sometime later in the nineteenth century they were separated, the present picture entering the collection of Sir Frederick Cook by 1903. After passing through several other private collections it was purchased by the Tate Gallery in 1980.
Robin Simon, 'New Light on Richard Wilson', The Burlington Magazine, vol.121, July 1979, pp.437-9, fig.66
Robin Simon, 'Richard Wilson's Meleager and Atalanta', The Burlington Magazine, vol. 123, July 1981, pp.414-7, figs. 28,29
The Tate Gallery 1982-84. Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, Tate Gallery 1986, pp.84-6