This is one of over thirty similar compositions by Wilson, traditionally said to depict a view on the river Arno in Italy. Wilson and his pupils habitually repeated favourite compositions such as this, Wilson himself apparently referring to them as 'good breeders' (Constable, p.58). All the versions of 'A View on the Arno', although they vary considerably in size, depict a small group of figures situated upon a promontory in the foreground, with a large boulder to the right and a blasted tree-trunk to the left. Beyond the river to the right is a hilltop fortress, while to the left the landscape lead to a plain with a mountainscape upon the horizon. The present picture is distinguished by the arrangement of the foreground figures - a reclining man with a fishing rod and a mother and baby - and the appearance of a small ruined semi-circular temple reflected in the surface of the lake.
The title, 'On the river Arno', was first used to describe the present subject by the engraver, Thomas Hastings (active 1813-31), in his volume of etchings after Wilson published in 1825. However, as it has been noted, Hastings is by no means a reliable guide to the identification of Wilson's landscapes (Constable, p.3). More recently, David Solkin has noted that in a letter of December 1764 Wilson had described a large version of the subject (City of Manchester Art Galleries), as simply 'A Summer Evening'. In the same letter Wilson stated that the picture was 'Esteemed by the first painters here to be my very best performance', and that he had 'kept a Drawing of it in order to do another for our next exhibition'. As Solkin observes, Wilson's 'Summer Evening' effects 'a union of opposing landscape types - the 'sublime' castellated bluffs of the one side, and the peaceful 'beauty' on a Claudean river vista on the other' (Solkin, p.222).
During the 1930s the picture was catalogued by the Tate Gallery simply as a 'Lake Scene', attributed to Wilson. In his catalogue of Wilson's oil paintings, published in 1953, W.G. Constable identified two principal versions of the composition, belonging respectively to the Earl of Egremont (Petworth House) and the Earl of Crawford. The version belonging to the Tate Gallery he described as 'Very doubtfully by Wilson' (Constable, p.214). In 1994 the Tate Gallery conserved this picture. The sensitive treatment of light and the dextrous handling of pigment suggest that the painting is by Wilson's own hand.
The picture was bequeathed by Mr George Salting to the National Gallery in 1910, and transferred to the Tate Gallery in 1919.
W.G. Constable, Richard Wilson, London 1953, pp. 213-14
David H. Solkin, Richard Wilson. The Landscape of Reaction, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery 1982, pp.221-2