The present picture is one of Wilson's most ambitious early Italian landscapes, painted three years after his arrival in Italy in 1750. It depicts one of the most celebrated views of Rome from the Janiculum Hill ('Mons Janiculus') in Trastevere. In the foreground is a classically dressed couple and, to the left, in shadows, a solitary cowherd. The prospect takes in the landscape to the north dominated, to the left of centre, by the Vatican, with the dome of St. Peter's and the Campagna beyond. On the horizon, to the right, is Mount Soracte.
The composition is carefully orchestrated according to the example of the seventeenth-century landscape painter Claude Lorrain (1600-82), both in terms of the tonal range - with marked juxtapositions of dark and light areas - and the arrangement of the foreground figures. It has also been suggested by David Solkin that Wilson was influenced by the Roman landscapes of Jan Frans van Bloemen ('l'Orizzonte') (1662-1749), 'many of whose works incorporate framing trees of different sizes on either side of a cluster of predominantly architectural motifs' (Solkin, p.186).
Wilson, possibly at the request of his patron, has taken particular care in the delineation of the antique sculpture in the painting's foreground, a relief representing two Maenads (female dancers associated with the cult of Dionysus) leading a bull to ritual slaughter. As Solkin has noted, Wilson probably copied the motif from a similar relief formerly in the Villa Medici and now in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence.
Rome: St Peter's and the Vatican from the Janiculum was one of a pair of pictures of Rome commissioned from Richard Wilson by one of his most important patrons in Italy, William Legge, second Earl of Dartmouth (1731-1801). Its companion, Rome from the Villa Madama, now belongs to the Yale Centre for British Art, New Haven. Lord Dartmouth had arrived in Rome by January 1753. There, his agent, Thomas Jenkins (1722-98), encouraged him to patronise Wilson. In addition to the two major oil paintings, Lord Dartmouth commissioned Wilson to make a series of chalk landscape drawings, numbering about sixty-eight in total. Of these drawings twenty featured views in and around Rome (see Brinsley Ford, 'The Dartmouth Collection of Drawings by Richard Wilson', The Burlington Magazine, December 1948, pp.337-45). In the spring of 1753 Wilson also accompanied Lord Dartmouth to Naples, possibly acting as his guide.
W.G. Constable, Richard Wilson, London 1953, p.220, plate 110a
The Tate Gallery 1974-6. Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, Tate Gallery 1978, pp.42-3
David H. Solkin, Richard Wilson.The Landscape of Reaction, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery 1982, p.186, no.68, reproduced
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T01873 ROME: ST. PETER'S AND THE VATICAN FROM THE JANICULUM c.1753
Oil on canvas, 39 9/16×54 3/8 (100.5×138.2)
Purchased (Grant-in-Aid) with a contribution from the National Art-
Collections Fund and an anonymous donation 1974
Coll: Painted in Rome for the 2nd Earl of Dartmouth probably in 1753; by descent to Lady Templemore, from whom purchased
Exh: B.I. 1814 (197); 1844 (141 or 147); Art Treasures, Manchester 1857 (34); R.A. 1879 (234); Birmingham 1948–9 (18); Tate Gallery 1949 (17)
Lit: Anon. [William Hodges], ‘An Account of Richard Wilson Esq.’ in European Magazine, XVII, June 1790, p.403; Brinsley Ford, ‘The Dartmouth Collection of Drawings’ in Burlington Magazine, XC, December 1948, p.337; Brinsley Ford, The Drawings of Richard Wilson, 1951; Brinsley Ford, ‘Richard Wilson in Rome’ in Burlington Magazine, XCIV, November 1952, p.307, fig.3; W. G. Constable, Richard Wilson, 1953, pp.33, 71, 164 (for history of Sydney version), 220, fig. 110a; Art Gallery of New South Wales Picturebook, 1972, p.14 (colour repr. of later version of T.1873)
Engr: by S. Middiman in 1807, for Edward Forster's British Gallery of Engravings
The picture shows the Vatican from the Janiculum, as seen from beyond the city walls in the evening light. The middle distance is dominated by the dome of St. Peter's, with the building of the Inquisition silhouetted against the sunlit architecture of the Vatican Palace. Immediately to the right of it is the top of the great Vatican obelisk which stands in the centre of the square. The hill immediately beyond is Monte Mario.
Though undated, it is reasonable to assume that the painting is contemporary with what has always been taken as its pair, the ‘View of Rome from the Villa Madama,’ which is signed and dated 1753. It left the Dartmouth collection at the same time as T01873 and is now in the Yale Center for British Art. The existence of a related drawing (Constable 1953, fig.110b), a view of the Vatican from a similar angle but taken from closer to, dated 1754, cannot be construed as suggesting the latter date for the painting, as all the drawings from the 1754 series in the Dartmouth collection, to which this belongs, are elaborate studio compositions and not preliminary, on-the-spot studies.
No preliminary sketches for this particular subject are known, but they must have existed. In fact, such sketches, clearly made on the spot, do exist for the pendant ‘View from the Villa Madama’ (Constable 1953, fig.108a). Both finished compositions entered Wilson's repertoire of Italian views; he repeated them with slight variations in format on his return to England in 1757. A repetition of the ‘View of the Vatican,’ (28×52 ins.), one of a set of four said to have been painted for Sir William Young of Standlynch some time between 1757 and 1766, is now in the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney. Like most of Wilson's later interpretations of Italian subjects, it appears to be painted in a higher colour key and with great clarity, but with less of the soft atmospheric effect aimed at emulating the Claudean idiom that is found in T01873. The pair to T01873, ‘View from the Villa Madama,’ was also adapted for this series (Constable 1953, fig.107b). Two smaller (27×51 ins.) versions of the Dartmouth pictures were with Agnew's 1976 (exh. Master Paintings, May–June 1976 (49 & 51, repr.)). There is also a drawing by George Frost (1745–1821) in black chalk (11 1/4×17 1/4 ins., with Christopher Powney in May 1975) which is clearly related to T01873, but sufficiently different in small details like the shape of the antique fragment in the foreground and the pattern of the branches, to suggest a source other than either of the paintings. Frost was a collector and copier of English drawings, so that it is quite possible that he may have owned a compositional working sketch for ‘A View of the Vatican,’ now lost. A drawing of the Vatican from about the same distance, but from a point further to the east, was in the Ingram collection (Ford 1951, pl.61).
The earliest mention of T01873 and its companion occurs in 1790 in an article by Wilson's pupil William Hodges, printed in the European Magazine, which says of the Dartmouth drawings that: ‘some..., together with two capital pictures, still remain in the possession of that nobleman’. There is no record of the Dartmouth collection ever having had any other paintings by Wilson save the two discussed here, and it must be assumed that Lord Dartmouth's agent in Rome, Thomas Jenkins, through whom Wilson obtained the earl's patronage, shipped the paintings to England soon after their completion.
William Legge, 2nd Earl of Dartmouth (1731–1801) seems to have arrived in Rome on his Grand Tour in 1753, by which time Wilson had been in the city already for over a year and had made the decision to abandon portraiture for landscape painting. In this he was already reaping his first successes with English tourists, but Lord Dartmouth was to become his most important patron in Italy. Records suggest that at one time the Dartmouth collection held over sixty drawings by Wilson, among which the set of twenty finished drawings of views of Rome and its environs, still nearly complete, were the most important. Like most works produced for the Grand Tour trade, these concentrate largely on classical remains. By contrast, the two oils are contemporary panoramic views of the city, yet the classical past is given almost equal weight by the prominence of the antique fragments in the carefully composed foreground. So far it has not been possible to identify the bas-relief in the foreground of T01873 with any particular known piece, but Brinsley Ford mentions several reliefs, either actual or engraved, which show a similar figure of Victory (Burlington Magazine, 1952, p.312).
The two Dartmouth paintings thus stand at the beginning of Wilson's career as a landscape painter and represent his earliest mature and deeply personal response to the Italian campagna in the grand style of Claude and Poussin. ‘The Villa Madama’ shows the light falling from the east, and it was presumably Wilson's intention to contrast in this pair the moods of morning and evening.
The Tate Gallery 1974-6: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1978