Catalogue entry

T03366 MELEAGER AND ATALANTA c. 1770

Oil on canvas 41 1/8 × 51 (1045 × 1295)
Purchased (Grant-in-Aid) 1982
Prov: ...; probably the version owned by Robert Sayer 1771, and passed to his relative James Sayer by 1794; ...; acquired by Samuel Rogers c. 1802, but not in his sale 1856; ...; Sir Frederick Cook by 1903 and until 1949 when lent to Birmingham and the Tate Gallery; ...;? Mrs Drey; ...; Boyd Alexander, on whose death in 1980 it passed to his stepson Jonathan Alexander, sold through Agnew to the Tate Gallery
Exh: RA Winter 1903 (28); Richard Wilson and his Circle, City Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham, November 1948–January 1949 (13), Tate Gallery, January 1949 (12)
Engr: Mezzotint by Richard Earlom, as from an original picture in the possession of ‘Mr. Sayer’, pub. Robert Sayer, September 1771; engraving by Woollett and Pouncey, lettered ‘Landskip painted by R. Wilson|figures by Mr. Mortimer’, pub. R. Sayer and J. Bennett 1 December 1779; engraving by Woollett and Pouncey, as from ‘the Original Picture in the Possession of James Sayer Esq.’, pub. Laurie and Whittle 1794
Lit: T. Wright, Life of Richard Wilson, 1824, p.21; Catalogue of Pictures at Doughty House, 1915, III, no.401, repr.; W.G. Constable, Wilson, 1953, pp. 116–18, 166–7, pl.25(b); R. Simon, 'New Light on ‘Richard Wilson’, Burlington Magazine, CXXI, 1979, pp.437–9, fig.66; R. Simon, ‘Richard Wilson's “Meleager and Atalanta” ’, Burlington Magazine, CXXIII, 1981, pp.414–17, figs.28, 29 (detail); K. Cave (ed.), The Diary of Joseph Farington, New Haven and London, VII, 1982, pp.2796–7

The subject is taken from Ovid's Metamorphoses, Book VIII, which describes the slaying of the Calydonian boar by the lovers Meleager and Atalanta and their hunting companions. The monstrous beast had been sent by the goddess Diana to devastate the countryside of Calydon, whose king had offended her. A quarrel over the trophies of the hunt was to precipitate further devastation and the eventual death of the hero. Wilson's savage and doom-laden landscape echoes the brutality of the action, and represents a development from his earlier attempts to depict mood and passion through landscape in the manner of Salvator Rosa's ‘banditti’ subjects, for example in ‘The Murder’, 1752, now in the National Gallery of Wales, Cardiff (repr. Constable 1953, pl.12b).

That Wilson was at pains to get the balance of human and natural drama exactly right is shown by his disapproval of the fact that Robert Sayer, who owned the painting in 1771, had the figures of the main group (the group with Atalanta on the left appears untouched) repainted by John Hamilton Mortimer (1740–79), who was known for his ‘banditti’ subjects. Presumably Sayer's motive was to strengthen the human element in order to conform more closely to conventional ideas of what a ‘history painting’ should look like; as a print-seller and publisher he may have felt that this would increase sales of the engraving after it. A marginal note by Faithfull Christopher Pack (1759–1840) in a copy of Wright's Life of Richard Wilson, now in the Nottingham University Library, records that he remembered seeing ‘the picture of Meleager at Mr. Mortimer's, who told him that “... Wilson has been here he heard that I had been employed to paint other Figures in the place of His in the picture of Meleager I said I have done so and showed him the Picture and he seemed much displeased and said your Figures are good but you have not put them in the right places and have broken the unity of effect that I had left”’ (this passage is fully discussed by Robin Simon 1979 and 1981).

Despite Wilson's understandable resentment, Mortimer's alterations appear respectful of the original, leaving the figure at the rear of the group almost untouched except for the changed angle of the spear. They are most noticeable in the recumbent figure, and in the altered stance of the two huntsmen on the right, around whom numerous pentimenti of Wilson's original group are discernible. Sayer's aim had obviously been to replace Wilson's highly individual, softly handled figures with a more high-lighted and sculptural group, that showed up better in an engraving and was more reminiscent of the antique.

It would appear that ‘Meleager’ had as a pendant Wilson's ‘Apollo and the Seasons’, presumably the version in the Viscount Allendale collection (repr. Constable 1953, pl.26a). Like the Tate painting, with which it is identical in size, it also has figures by Mortimer and was published as a print several times, including in 1779 a companion to the ‘Meleager’ print, from a painting also in the possession of James Sayer. The paintings were still together in 1806, when Farington remarked in his diary on 26 June 1806 that ‘The two pictures which Rogers has painted by Wilson, formerly belonged to Sayer, the Print seller. - Rogers gave about 160 guineas for the pair’. It appears that Rogers noted their purchase c. 1802 in his commonplace book (information kindly supplied by Gillian Malpass, who is working on the Rogers collection).

A pen and wash drawing of the part of the painting which includes the Mortimer figure group is in the Bolton Museum and Art Gallery (repr. Simon 1981, fig.30). It is on French blue rag paper of the 1760s, but cannot be ascribed to either Wilson or Mortimer. The style is closer to Joseph Farington, who was Wilson's pupil 1763–7 (the attribution was first made by Judy Egerton). Simon suggests that it may have been executed by Farington as a specific record of an alternation to the work of an acknowledged master, especially as the alteration seems to have been sufficiently well publicised for Wilson to come to inspect it.

A drawing of the altar in the foreground, bearing the inscriptions ‘GENIO HVIC DEO| SACRUM’ and ‘Villa Madama’, is in the Victoria and Albert Museum (Dyce 661).

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1982-84: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1986