Attributed to Richard Wilson (Penegoes 1713 - Colomendy 1782)
A River Landscape with Figures Dancing in the Foreground, Mountains Beyond
oil on canvas
35.9 x 43.3 cm (14⅛ x 17⅛ in)
with J. & W. Vokins, London;
Fasque, the Scottish seat of the Gladstones;
thence by descent.
Possibly 1851 Inventory, Dessert Room, '22 Paintings and 3 Prints - £35.0.0'
In this jovial scene two peasants dance together, whilst a companion provides musical accompaniment. Two more figures sit on the ground watching this revelry. Beyond the wooded clearing is an old stone bridge traversing a river and nearby a figure sits fishing. In the background a wide lake is flanked by mountains. The whole scene is bathed in a soft, hazy warm light.
A River Landscape with Figures Dancing in the Foreground, Mountains Beyond is attributed to Richard Wilson, and the compositional structure is one that Wilson used on several occasions, generally titled as River Mouth with Peasants Dancing. Examples of this are in the Neue Pinakothek in Munich and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Several similarities between the Victoria and Albert Museum’s version and the present work are notable. The eye is led from a similar group of foreground figures, along the river to the lake and mountains in the background. The dancers are relaxing at the end of the day in the same dusky light. The major compositional difference between the works is the use of the river. In the present work, the river flows quite sharply off, under the bridge and out of sight, whereas it holds a much more dominant position in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s version. The river plunges straight back through the centre of the composition to the distant lake and Wilson clearly focuses on the reflection of the sky in the still water, contrasting it to the dark, shadowed waters on the left-hand side. The other significant difference is that the precision evident in Landscape Composition; River Mouth with Peasants has not been applied to the present picture where the brushwork is much looser and more relaxed.
A River Landscape with Figures Dancing in the Foreground, Mountains Beyond shares qualities with much of Wilson’s oeuvre, for example Holt Bridge on the River Dee. This painting also depicts figures relaxing whilst a companion plays a musical instrument. Below their elevated position, a river stretches away, towards a background made up of distant mountains. In Holt Bridge on the River Dee, Wilson has painted a landscape that exists; Holt Bridge joins Holt in Denbighshire to Farndon in Cheshire, although this is not a topographically accurate view. Instead, he has focused on depicting a unified landscape in the tradition of Claude Lorraine’s paintings of the Roman campagna, which appear to have also informed A River Landscape with Figures Dancing in the Foreground, Mountains Beyond.
Having studied under Thomas Wright, Wilson began his career as a portrait painter in the 1740s. In 1750 he travelled to Venice, and by 1752, to Rome, where he executed many drawings of the city and the campagna, and where he studied the works of painters such as Claude and Poussin. It was in Rome that Claude-Joseph Vernet, on seeing Wilson’s work, expressed surprise that a landscape painter as talented as Wilson spent his time painting portraits. On his return to London Wilson established a successful studio with many pupils. His popularity lay in his ability to synthesise actual and ideal landscapes, since the latter, firmly rooted in the Arcadian tradition, had a particular appeal to his classically educated clientele. From 1760, his work included historical landscapes in the grand style, alongside Claudean depictions of English views. Wilson was a founder-member of the Royal Academy and enjoyed considerable success until the early 1770s, but his last years were spent in poverty, his reputation in decline and he retired to Wales in 1781. However, after his death his work began to be appreciated again and was a significant influence on J. M. W. Turner’s generation. His significance is such that he ‘fills much the same place in the development of a tradition of landscape painting in Britain that Reynolds does in the development of portraiture’1.
1 Ellis Waterhouse, Painting in Britain, 1530 – 1790, Penguin Books, London, 1953 p. 172.