Richard Wilson is recognised as one of the most important British landscape painters. He is known primarily for his classical landscapes, imbued with the light of Italy. Wilson was the first major British-born artist to make a successful career as a specialist in landscape painting. His paintings were popular among those members of the educated classes within British society who were well versed in the classics, many of whom had visited Italy on the Grand Tour.
While Wilson did find a market for his work among the uppermost classes, his paintings were also popular among the middle gentry. Though drawn to Italianate landscapes, many of these people did not have the financial resources to purchase works by such masters of seventeenth-century art as Claude Lorrain, Gaspard Dughet and Salvator Rosa, who were most highly prized. The influence of these old masters is visible here in River Landscape, as with a great many of Wilson’s works.
This painting is typical of Wilson’s work: dark, framing elements in the foreground, peasants or labourers in the landscape, progressively paler hills in the background, and of course, the indispensable golden light of Italy. Though this painting is attributed to Richard Wilson, it may have been produced by a follower or someone in his studio. His work was endlessly copied and forged in his own lifetime; even Wilson himself produced numerous versions of his successful works. There are at least 20 versions, for example, of his Summer Evening (one of which can be seen in Manchester City Art Gallery).
Richard Wilson was a key figure in the early development of British landscape painting. He worked as a portraitist until the 1750s, when he spent seven years studying in Italy. He trained himself to become a landscape artist in the style of Lorrain and Poussin, whose classical and idyllic landscapes were popular with the English upper classes. Wilson built up a successful landscape practice in London on his return from Italy, but his career declined in the 1770s, in part as a result of his alcoholism and illness.
Collection of art patron and historian Kenneth Mackenzie Clark, Baron Clark (1903-1983); by whom sold through Christie’s, London, on 8 May 1936 (Lot 67), as ‘A River Scene’; from which sale purchased by ‘Rattray’ on behalf of the Office of Works
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