Your Collection at the NGC: Rome from the Villa Madama by Richard Wilson

Richard Wilson, Rome from the Villa Madama, c. 1765, oil on canvas, 100.3 x 135.5 cm. NGC

Described as the “most distinguished painter Wales has ever produced,” Richard Wilson (British, 1714–82) is an acknowledged master of landscape. Born the son of a clergyman in Wales, Wilson went to London to apprentice as a portrait painter at the tender age of fifteen.

From 1751 to 1757, Wilson lived in Rome, where he was part of a vibrant cosmopolitan community. Artists from across Italy, and from England, France, Flanders and Germany, flocked to the Eternal City, where they produced commissions for an equally international group of expatriates and visitors.

Wilson was the first important British painter to concentrate on landscape. He developed a style that owed much to artists such as the great 17th-century painter Claude Lorrain, and often painted Italianate landscapes with themes from Classical literature.

In Rome from the Villa Madama, Wilson was painting a view that would likely have been known to many of the men and women following the Grand Tour, which was then at its height. Standing on the Monte Mario, a hill on the west bank of the Tiber, the domes and towers of Rome’s churches can be seen, along with its palaces and monuments — summarily painted, but still recognizable. In the distance are the Alban Hills, the mountains to the city’s southeast. In the foreground, sheltered by the trees at left, a family has gathered to admire the majestic view, which one of them is drawing. 

During the 18th century, Rome had captured the European imagination. Pictures like this resonated deeply with contemporary viewers, calling up a host of associations: antiquity, still the standard for literature and art; and the city’s more recent past, marked by the great achievements of the Renaissance. Rome — or rather, the idea of Rome, partly grounded in fact, partly imaginary, and meaning different things to different people — was an essential point of reference across all of Europe and its settlements in the Americas.

Working from drawings made onsite, which he later adapted in his studio, Wilson presents a topographically convincing image. More importantly, however, he conveys a sense of time and place: the feeling of a summer afternoon (the sun has swung round to the south), with the city and the land beyond basking in the heat.

The picture is carefully composed: the foreground is bracketed by trees that frame the view — a favourite device of painters. To remind viewers of the city’s heroic but long-vanished past, a headless antique statue is propped against a block of stone in the foreground. In the middle ground, the hillside to the right shelters the Villa Madama, built in the 16th century to designs by Raphael. Beyond this, the composition opens up to a sweeping vista out over the city and into the distance, as darker tones of shadowed woods give way to dazzling sunlight.

Wilson first painted this view in 1753, when he was still living in Italy. That first painting is in the collection of the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut. The painting at the National Gallery of Canada was made years later, after Wilson had returned to London. Painters often produced replicas or variants of successful works, based on the theory that artists could return again and again to the same idea, exploring new aspects or perfecting them. When painting the work on view at the Gallery, Wilson made subtle changes to details. Most important, however, his technique is different this time, with a noticeably thicker application of paint.

Despite his success, Wilson’s life was difficult. After a period of success following his return to London, he fell on hard times. The reasons for this are unclear, although suggestions range from the possibility of a difficult personality to alcoholism and professional competition. For painters of the next generation, however — artists such as John Constable and J.M.W. Turner — he was an important symbol. To them, he was the leading landscape painter of the day: the founder of the British school of landscape painting, who had been abandoned by his patrons. This bittersweet notion of genius unrecognized in its own day, only to be celebrated later, offered solace to struggling artists.

Reconstructing a work’s provenance can be difficult, but Rome from the Villa Madama seems to have had a celebrated history, attracting the attention of numerous artists and collectors over the years. “It is as simple as possible, and as grand as it can be; it is as if Michael Angelo had taken it up,” and “compared with Claude the largeness and dignity of Wilson’s mind is most striking,” said one critic. “The colouring is very masterly,” wrote artist James Barry, “his style of design is generally more grand, more consistent, and more poetical than any other person’s amongst us.”

From these comments, it is clear why Wilson mattered: he was a painter equal to the Old Masters. More to the point, he was British, revealing a growing self-awareness among British artists and patrons, who were beginning to shape the idea of a uniquely British School of art, rivalling the French and Italian Schools.

Wilson’s fame rose and fell over the 19th and 20th centuries. The Gallery bought this work in 1948, at a time when new scholarly interest in his work was just beginning, including the publication of a catalogue raisonné, new discoveries about his work, and solo exhibitions. Most recently, the Paul Mellon Centre has sponsored the production of an online catalogue raisonné restoring Wilson’s place in the pantheon of British artists, while celebrating the life and career of one of the unsung heroes of British landscape art.

Rome from the Villa Madama by Richard Wilson is on view in C208 at the National Gallery of Canada.

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