Joseph Wright of Derby

A View of Catania with Mount Etna in the Distance


Oil paint on canvas
Support: 660 x 886 mm
frame: 908 x 1134 x 122 mm
Purchased 1971

Display caption

Wright was increasingly influenced by the diffuse Mediterranean lighting of the Roman countryside. He wrote of 'an atmosphere so pure and clear that objects twenty miles distant seem not half the way'. No record exists of Wright's having seen Mount Etna in Sicily. He probably worked from another artist''s view, which might account for topographical inaccuracies. Here the large expanse of cool light that veils Mount Etna is the focus of the painting. Crisp, calm air suffuses the architecture and surroundings. However, the ravaged lava fields in the foreground stand as a reminder of nature''s ability to overwhelm human presence.

Gallery label, August 2004

Catalogue entry

Joseph Wright of Derby 1734–1797

T01278 A View of Catania with Mount Etna in the Distance circa 1775

Not inscribed.
Canvas, 26 x 34¿ (66 x 88.5) plus approx. ¿ (1.5) of original paint turned over stretcher at top and each side.
Purchased from Herner Wengraf Ltd. (Grant-in-Aid) 1971.
Coll: ? John Milnes before spring 1776 and ? returned to the artist early 1780; ? ‘A Nobleman’, sold Christie’s, 10–11 March 1780, 2nd day (tot), bt. Bird; ? Charles Hamilton deceased, sold Christie’s 14–15 March [783, 2nd day (53, as ‘View near Naples’), bt. Bird; ? 2nd Viscount Palmerston, bt. at Christie’s 1783 (exact date unknown); … ; by descent to Godfrey Meynell, sold Sotheby’s, 18 November 1970 (40, repr. before cleaning), bt. Herner Wengraf.
Lit: Benedict Nicolson, Joseph Wright of Derby, 1968, I, pp.262, 282.

Marks in the paint echoing the present stretcher show that the size of the picture was reduced and the painted edges at the top and on each side were turned over a considerable time ago. Further stretcher marks suggest that the picture originally extended about 2 in. (5 cm.) further on each side and in. (4 cm.) above, making a total size of approximately 28 x 40 in. (71.5.x 101.5 cm.). The strip of buildings, which is such a striking feature of the composition, continues to the present edges of the canvas.

A larger version, approximately 33 x 49 in. (84 x 124.5 cm.), showing the same view late in the evening instead of under the bright afternoon sun of the Tate’s picture, belongs to Mr T.O’Farrell. Parts of the town are in shadow and the figures in the foreground are different. What was almost certainly a third version, of much the same size as the second, was seen by the compiler late in 1971. Apart from the sky- it seemed on the whole to have been close in detail to the Tate painting but comparison was complicated by the extensive overpainting suffered by the other work in the foreground and elsewhere: in particular a dome and a tower had been added to the roofline of the town and a large ruin and tree in the left-hand foreground, apparently, to judge by an inscription on the stretcher, in an effort to fake a supposed J. M.W.Turner painting of Capua, north of Naples.

The only view of Etna documented in Wright’s papers is a picture that, with a companion moonlight view of Vesuvius at present untraced, originally belonged to John Milnes of Wakefield, one of the artist’s leading patrons (see Nicolson, op. cit., pp.159-60). In a letter of n January 1780 Wright wrote that Milnes wished to return ‘a picture of Mount Vesuvius’ (‘a near View of ye Mountain wch shews the Lava to great advantage, & the distance is made up of the Bay of Naples, the Islands of Procida Ischia Caprea etc. etc. the necks of land breaking into the sea wth the reflection of ye. moon’) as he had bought a bigger painting of the same subject at the Society of Artists exhibition in 1776. The picture Milnes wished to return had ‘a companion of Mount Etna’, measured ‘I believe about 2 feet 10 by 2 ft. 5 in.’ and was ‘highly finish’d’. It is not certain from the evidence whether Milnes returned the Etna as well as the Vesuvius.

Either the Milnes painting of Etna or another version was subsequently sold by ‘A Nobleman’ at Christie’s on 11 March 1780, again with a companion view of Vesuvius. Lot 100 was ‘The Eruption of Mount Vesuvius’ and lot 101 ‘Ditto Mount Etna, its companion’ and they were bought by ‘Bird’ for 62 and 47 guineas respectively. They were accompanied by two further pictures by Wright, ‘Maria from Sterne’s sentimental journey’ and ‘The royal captive, its companion’, also bought by Bird for 29 and 49 guineas. What may have been the same group of pictures turned up at Christie’s again three years later, sold from the collection of Charles Hamilton on 15 March 1783, but although lot 47 was ‘Captive from Sterne’, lot 48 ‘Maria’ and lot 54 ‘Mount Vesuvius’ the work to which the last was listed as ‘The companion’, lot 53, was described as ‘View near Naples’, not Etna; moreover the prices, paid by the ubiquitous Bird, were considerably lower, ranging from 1½ to 24 guineas.

A notebook kept by the second Lord Palmerston contains an entry stating that he had bought ‘A View of Qtna Wright Christie’s 1783. 32.1 1 .0’ together with ‘A View of Vesuvius during an Eruption by night do [ditto] Wright 43.1.0’. The night scene of Vesuvius may well be the Milnes picture in which case the ‘Qtna’ could be Milnes’ companion, providing that he returned it to the artist at the same time. The pictures could also be the pair sold at Christie’s in 1780 and, bur only if one allows for both a mistaken description of the Etna and a considerable write-up in price by Bird, again in 1783.

Although the Meynell family had had the Tate’s picture for some time, Godfrey Meynell, in a letter of March 1971, wrote that, ‘I am afraid we have been unable to trace when this came into my family, bur not—so far as can be seen—when our other Wrights did so’ (these were ‘A Grotto in the Kingdom of Naples, with Banditti: A Sunset’, ‘A Grotto with the Figure of Julia’ and ‘Virgil’s Tomb’, all of which were bought by Wright’s patron Josiah Cockshut before June 1780 and passed to his descendant C. Heathcote who sold them to the then Godfrey Meynell in 1840; see Nicolson, op. cit., pp.256, 258, nos.277–8, 286). There is no known connection with Lord Palmerston or the sales of 1780 and 1783.

The tentative dimensions given by Wright in his letter of 1780, 29 x 34 in., are not particularly helpful in identifying the Milnes picture as they fit none of the versions known at present. Wright’s measurements would, however, produce a picture unusually square in format and his memory could well have been at fault. Slight support for an identification is, however, given by the fact that the version in the O’Farrell collection comes from the same source as another picture that probably belonged to John Milnes, ‘A Cottage in Need wood Forest’ (Nicolson, op. cit., p.263).

Although Wright seems to have painted Vesuvius no fewer than twenty-seven times (see Nicolson, op. cit., pp.279–84), at present only the three pictures of Etna arc known. One reason could be that Wright only knew Etna at second hand, from a drawing or engraving by some other artist, no visit by him to Sicily being recorded and there being very little time during his stay in Italy when such a trip can be fitted in. The slight variation in some of the architectural detail between the different versions of the composition also suggests that he had no personal knowledge of Catania. The subject made however a good foil to that of the more active volcano, Vesuvius, by night and, even if T01278 cannot be identified with the picture in Milnes’ collection, its style supports a dating sometime between Wright’s visit to Naples and Vesuvius in the autumn of 1774 and the spring of 1776, the only period during which Wright could have painted the Milnes picture before the purchase of the second Vesuvius at the Society of Artists in the latter year. For the companion to this second Vesuvius, and in at least one other case, the pair of pictures exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1778 and 1779, he found a new subject contrasting the effect of nature with that of artifice as shown in ‘La Girandola’, a firework display held at the Castel Sant’ Angelo, Rome (‘the one is the greatest effect of Nature the other of Art that I suppose can be’—letter of 15 January 1776: see Nicolson, op. cit., p.279).

Published in The Tate Gallery Report 1970–1972, London 1972.