Richard Wilson

The British painter Richard Wilson (1713/1714-1782) raised English landscape painting to new heights by uniting its topographical traditions with those of the great 17th-century landscape masters on the Continent.

The third son of the rector of Penygoes in Montgomeryshire, Wales, Richard Wilson received an excellent grounding in classical literature from his father. In 1729 Richard went to London "to indulge his prevailing love for the arts of design," and there he trained under an obscure portrait painter, Thomas Wright. Family connections with the aristocracy helped Wilson to get portrait commissions, including one from the royal family, but his reputation among artists was chiefly for topographical landscapes imbued with a strong feeling for open-air naturalism. In 1746 he painted the Founding Hospital and St. George's Hospital for the Founding Hospital.

In 1750 Wilson went to Venice and about a year later to Rome, where Salvator Rosa was his chief model for dramatic landscapes with storms, shipwrecks, and bandits. For six years Wilson made an intensive study of the Italian landscape, especially scenes with classical associations, working up his open-air sketches into studio pictures, strongly influenced in his handling of light and air by the Dutch masters and in his composition by Gaspard Dughet, Nicolas Poussin, and Claude Lorrain.

After his return to England in 1756 or 1757, Wilson took an apartment in the Great Piazza in Covent Garden, where he also had a studio for his pupils. He made his chief bid for fame with a number of versions of the Destruction of the Daughters of Niobe, one of which was exhibited at the Society of Artists in 1760. The verdict of Sir Joshua Reynolds was unfavorable, but in any case the taste of the aristocracy was not for heroic essays in the sublime, corresponding to the theories of Edmund Burke, but for pictures of their country houses elevated by the style of Claude Lorrain and for Italian scenes that reminded them of their grand tours.

Between 1765 and 1769 Wilson gave up his apartment in Covent Garden. Elected a foundation member of the Royal Academy in 1768, he established a practice both substantial and lucrative, but sporadic ill health, generosity, touchiness, and the unremunerative proportion of his time devoted to uncommissioned heroic landscapes all contributed to the decline of his fortune. His appointment as librarian to the Royal Academy in 1776 was largely a charitable gesture.

Wilson frequently visited his beloved Wales, and he retired there in 1781. He died in Colomendy, Denbigshire, the following year. His Welsh landscapes, such as Snowdon (ca. 1766) and Cader Idris (ca. 1774), and views of the English countryside are highly original paintings which announce the romantic exaltation of nature and solitude.

Further Reading on Richard Wilson

The standard authority for Wilson's life and work is W. G. Constable, Richard Wilson (1953), which contains nearly 400 illustrations. An excellent appreciation of Wilson is in Ellis Waterhouse, Painting in Britain, 1530-1790 (1953; 2d ed. 1962).