London, Royal Academy, 1779, no. 359;
Derby, Corporation Art Gallery, Wright of Derby, Bicentenary Exhibition, 1934, no. 37;
London, Tate Gallery, and Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery, Arts Council of Great Britain, Joseph Wright of Derby, 1958, no. 17;
London, The Council of Europe, The Romantic Movement, 1959;
Paris, The British Council, British Romantic Painting, 1972, no. 342;
London, Tate Gallery, Wright of Derby, 7th February - 22nd April 1990, no. 61
This picture is instantly recognisable as one of the most iconic images of the British Romantic movement. A master of depicting light in paint Joseph Wright of Derby depicts his subject with unparalleled dramatic effect of candle light, moonlight and emotion. Painted in 1779 it is one of a distinguished group of paintings inspired by the artist's travels in Italy, and demonstrates the impact which that experience had on his art. Wright began his life as a portraitist, working briefly in Liverpool, and then attempting to fill the void left by Gainsborough's exodus from Bath, many of Wright's best loved works are landscape and genre scenes. Wright's earliest known pure landscape is a picture entitled Rocks with Waterfall, painted in circa 1772 (Private Collection). It was not until he travelled to Italy however, that landscapes really start to feature prominently in his art, and it is this development that represents the most profound influence of Wright's experience on the continent. In Italy, away from the time constraints of portrait commissions, Wright was able to fully immerse himself in the study of topography and made more drawings than he had previously had time for, sketching heavily throughout his travels. The experience was a personal revelation, and following his return to England he seized every chance he had to paint landscapes; writing to a friend in 1792 'I know not how it is, tho' I am ingaged in portraits... I find myself continually stealing off, and getting to Landscapes'.
In 1773 Wright had left England with his wife, his pupil Richard Hurlstone, and the artist John Downman, arriving in Nice in December, before travelling on to Genoa and Leghorn. Continuing overland they arrived in Rome in February 1774, where Wright stayed for seven months studying the splendours of classical antiquity. Writing in 22 May 1774 Wright noted 'I have not time to enter into a particular detail of the fine things this country abounds with; let it suffice to tell you, at present, that the artist finds here whatever may facilitate and improve his studies'.1 In the autumn he travelled on to Naples and the area around the gulf of Salerno, a popular destination for the cognoscenti of his generation and over the course of more than a month visited Pompeii, Herculaneum and the Museum at Naples, as well as Virgil's tomb and the coastal grottos for which that region is famed.
Positioned high up on the hillside above the Grotto of Posillipo, an ancient tunnel constructed in antiquity to shorten the route between Naples and Pozzuoli, Virgil's tomb became an obligatory stop on the Grand Tour. Identified since the early middle ages as the final resting place for the great Roman poet following his death at Brindisi in the year 19 BC, by the eighteenth century the Grotto was a popular subject for artists for its romantic appeal. The combination of sublime visual aesthetics and literary prestige made the subject irresistible. Wright's work is unquestionably the most notably picturesque treatment of the subject.
The popularity of this scene led Wright to visit it on several occasions following his return from Italy and in all Wright is believed to have painted six versions of the composition. This is the prime version and Wright's first treatment of the subject. It is also one of only two versions in which Wright includes the figure of Silius Italicus orating to an invisible audience.2 The second version, painted in 1784, five years after the present work, is now in the Paul Mellon Collection, Yale; the other traceable versions of the composition being in the Ulster Museum, Belfast, the Derby Museum and Art Gallery, and in a private collection. A Roman Consul under Emperor Nero, Silius Italicus retired to the Naples countryside in the late 70s AD, acquiring one of Cicero's villas and the land on which Virgil's tomb and the grotto stood. A letter of circa 101 AD from Pliny the Younger to Caninus Rufus reporting on Silius Italicus's death recalls how 'he would visit Virgil's tomb as if it were a temple, celebrating Virgil's birthday more solemnly than his own'.3 The inclusion of the figure of Silius Italicus declaiming Virgil's verses within the tomb provided the sort of recondite allusion which appealed to Wright, and he is the only artist to have imbued the scene with such esoteric meaning. More importantly, however, the introduction of a figure reading at night within an enclosed space, for which of course he must have a candle to see by, gave the artist the opportunity to introduce a second light source within the painting.
This deployment of twin light sources, the juxtaposition of candlelight and moonlight, is a magnificent example of Wright's genius, and is what gives the composition its innate romanticism. In the interior, candle light fills the glowing golden-orange cavern, whilst reflected light plays off the walls of the craggy entrance and its warmth emanates softly into the cold night air. Outside soft moonlight silhouettes the craggy outline of the rock, with its wild foliage engulfing the tomb, and traces a path down the crumbling stone steps. It is a breath taking piece of painting and an exquisite example of the artist's depiction of light, for which he had rightly become famous in such earlier works as An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (National Gallery, London), of 1768, and An Academy by Lamplight (Yale Center for British Art, New Haven), of 1769, and for which he was celebrated by contemporaries.
As well as his own experience of the tomb, and the drawings he made in Italy, a number of sources have been suggested for Wright's treatment of the subject, among them an engraving by Paolo Antonio Paoli, published in 1768 in his Antichita di Pozzuoli: Puteolanae Antiquitates. Paoli was widely used by artists in the late eighteenth century, and Wright's general composition and treatment of the exterior of the tomb display marked similarities with that found in Paoli's work.
1. J. Ingamells, A Dictionary of British and Irish Travellers in Italy 1701-1800, New Haven and London 1997, p. 1024
2. J. Egerton, Wright of Derby, Catalogue to the Exhibition at the Tate Gallery, London 1990, p. 11
3. J. Egerton, op.cit., London 1990, p. 120
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