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The Destruction of the Children of Niobe
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
Richard Wilson (1713/14-1782)
The Destruction of the Children of Niobe
c.1760 (undated)
Oil on canvas
147.3 x 188 cm
58 x 74 in.
B1977.14.81
P90
Eleven of Niobe's children are killed in a dramatic, lightning-filled landscape, which owes much to the influence of Gaspard Dughet and to a lesser extent, Joseph Vernet. Wilson's stormy setting emphasises the horror of the narrative by the broken trees, reeds bent with the wind, tumultuous seas, the fire in the distant town, the stormy skies, with lightning striking the mountain and the lurid light on the distant horizon.
SA 1760 (72); BI 1814 (202/206); BI 1843 (152); Manchester 1857 (32); Richmond 1963 (19); London 1964-65 (301); New Haven 1965 (227); London 1973-74, under no. 31; London, Cardiff and New Haven, 1982-83 (87); New York 2010 (7); Tercentenary 2014 (89)
Bt by William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland (1721-1765), uncle of George III in 1760; his nephew William Henry, Duke of Gloucester (1743-1805) by 1790; his sale Christie's, 17 May 1806 (21, bt in: Bourgeois, 800 gns); William Frederick, Duke of Gloucester (1776-1834), 1814; Wynne Ellis (1790-1875), by 1843; his sale, Christie's, 6 May 1876 (135), bt Bromilow); thereafter by family descent until 1961; Bonham's 4 May 1961 (21), bt Thomas Agnew & Sons (stock number J3495), from whom purchased by Paul Mellon, 28 June 1961
Possibly signed 'Wilson' in yellow green paint at lower right corner
This painting is inspired by Ovid's Metamorphoses, Book 6, lines 144-312. Niobe, daughter of Tantalus and Queen of Thebes, is punished for having dared to suggest, because she had seven sons and seven daughters, that she was superior to the goddess Leto (or Latona). Apollo and Artemis, children of Leto, killed all of Niobe's offspring in revenge and she herself wept until she was turned into stone.
D53/1 Niobe from An Italian Sketchbook, Victoria & Albert Museum
D325 The Children of Niobe, The British Museum (1847,0723.107)
D355 Study for Figure for Niobe, National Museum Wales, Cardiff (NMW A 1885)
E11 William Woollett, Niobe, National Museum Wales, Cardiff &c
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This is the key picture of Wilson's career. The composition, with the newly-split tree at the left, the darkened bluff with the silhouetted castle at the right and the distant mountains, is very close to Dughet's picture The Cascade, then in the Walpole Collection at Houghton, which was copied by George Barret in watercolour, and also by J.G. Hackert. Wilson however, did not emulate Dughet's pastoral mood. His figures owe an obvious debt to the famous classical group of sculptures representing Niobe, which were in Rome from 1583 until their removal to Florence in 1769. In 1752 Wilson made a drawing of the central marble of Niobe sheltering the last of her daughters (D53/1, Victoria & Albert Museum). Such was the success of the present work, not least on account of its engraving by the young William Woollett, published byJohn Boydell in 1761, that Wilson produced many further versions. Yet despite its apparent debt to the grand manner in its sublime subject matter and its purchase by a member of the royal family, it was to be criticised by Reynolds in 1790 (Discourse 14) for 'introducing gods and goddesses, ideal beings'. Reynolds went on to imply that Wilson's ambitious design was ridiculous. William Hazlitt later held this view (The Fine Arts, 1832, p. 34) which now seems, as pointed out by E.K. Waterhouse, ungenerous and probably based on jealousy (Three Decades of British Art, pp. 34-35). The picture was also criticised by J.H. Pott in 1782, but Turner praised it in his 'Backgrounds' lecture of 1811 at the Royal Academy and indeed, there is hardly a representation of the Niobe story by any artist that does not have Apollo and Diana kneeling or standing on clouds. Wilson, however, was to have no more success with the royal family.
Object ID: 423
Anon., ' Account of the late Exhibition of Pictures', Imperial Magazine, vol 1, April 1760, p. 247; Pott 1782, pp. 28-30; Sir Joshua Reynolds, Discourses on Art, ed. Robert R. Wark, 1975, pp. 255-56; Hodges 1790, pp. 403 ff; Farington Diary, vol. 6, 2 May 1806, pp. 2743 & 2763; vol. 12, 15 Feb.1813, pp. 4299-4300; Edwards 1808, pp. 79, 82-86; J. Young, Catalogue of the Collection of Pictures of the Marquess of Stafford, 1825, vol. 2, under 242; J.T. Smith, Nollekens and his Times, 2nd ed, 1829, p. 252; Henry Angelo, Reminiscences, vol. 1, 1830, pp. 148, 253; William Hazlitt, The Fine Arts, p. 34; John Pye, Patronage of British Art, London, 1845, p. 158; Waagen 1854, vol. 2, p. 298; W. Sandby, Thomas and Paul Sandby 1892; Fletcher 1908, p. 90; William W.T. Whitley, Artists and their Friends in England 1700-1799, London, 1929, p. 169; Borenius 1944, p. 211; Grant 1945, pp. 44, 47; WGC, pp. 42, 49, 71, 86, 87, 160-63, pl. 19a; Constable 1962, pp. 138-39, no. 1, fig. 1; Jerrold Ziff, 'Backgrounds, Introduction of Architecture and Landscape: A Lecture by J.M.W. Turner', Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, vol. 26, 1963, pp. 146-47; Taylor 1963 cat.19, pl. 220; Taylor 1964, cat. 301; Taylor 1965, cat. 227; E.K. Waterhouse, Three Decades of British Art, 1965, pp. 34-35, 52; Jack Lindsay, Turner, 1966, p. 90 and Appendix 1; Oliver Millar, Later Georgian Pictures in the Royal Collection, London, 1969 , pp. xvi-xvii; Hermann 1973, pp. 55-56; Parris 1973, pp. 29-30, under no. 31; Ronald Paulson, 'Types of Demarcation: Townscape and Landscape Painting,' Eighteenth Century Studies, Spring 1975, vol. 8, no. 3, pp. 337-54; Joseph Burke, English Art 1714-1800, 1976, pp. 226-27, repr. pl. 64 B; E.K. Waterhouse, Painting in Britain 1530-1790, 4th ed., 1978, pp. 236-37 , n. p. 348; David Alexander and Richard T. Godfrey, Painters and Engraving, the Reproductive Print from Hogarth to Wilkie, 1980 under no. 36; Anne French, Gaspard Dughet called Gaspar Poussin 1615-1675, ex. cat., The Iveagh Bequest, Kenwood, 1980, under no. 74; Solkin 1982, pp. 59-66, n. 31, pp. 200-201, repr. pl. 5; Jeanne K. Welcher and Randi Joseph, 'Gulliverian Drawings by Richard Wilson', Eighteenth Century Studies, vol. 18, no. 2, Winter 1984-85, p. 182, n. 20; Cormack 1985, p. 252. repr. p. 253; Morton D. Paley, The Apocalyptic Sublime, New Haven and London, 1986, repr. pl. 51; Elisabeth Wiemann, Der Mythos von Niobe und Ihren Kindern, thesis, Worms, 1986, pp. 123, 215, no. 619, p. 259, no. 151, repr. pl. 75; Susan Lambert, The Image Multiplied, Five Centuries of printed Reproductions of Paintings and Drawings, 1987, no. 62A; Felicity Owen and David Blayney Brown, Collector of Genius, A Life of Sir George Beaumont, New Haven and London, 1988, pp. 10, 77, 88, repr. pl. 34; Juan J. Luna, 'Pintura Britanica', Summa Artis,vol. 33, Madrid, 1989, repr.; Eric Shanes, Turner's Human Landscape, London, 1990, pp. 159-60, repr. fig. 97; Burton M. Frederickson (ed.) Index of Paintings sold in the British Isles, vol. 2, 1806-1810, Santa Barbara and Oxford, 1990, no. 409 and p. 1093; K. Baetjer, M. Rosenthal, K. Nicholson, R. Quaintance, S. Daniels and T. Standring, Glorious Nature - Biritish Landscape Painting 1750-1850,exh. cat., Denver art Museum, 1993, pp. 19-20; The Great Artists Marshall Cavendish Weekly Collection: Wilson, vol 58, 1985/1993; Robert R. Wark, The Revolution in Eighteenth Century Art: Ten British Pictures, Huntington Library Press, San Marino, 2001, repr. p. 95; Hendrick Ziegler, A Symbiosis between Landscape and History Painting: Richard Wilson's Destruction of Niobe's Children, PhD Thesis, University of Berlin; A. Crookshank in W. Laffan, ed., The Sublime and the Beautiful: Irish Art 1700-1800, London, Pyms Gallery, 2001, pp. 84-85; William Laffan & Brendan Rooney, Thomas Roberts: Landscape and Patronage in Eighteenth-Century Ireland, Dublin, 2009, p. 25; Wilson and Europe 2014, pp. 274-75; Solkin 2015, pp. 211-12, 217
Examined by Kate Lowry April 2012:
Suspected signature lower right. Framed dimensions:166.4 x 210.8 x 10.2 cm; 65 1/2 x 83 x 4 in. Glue relined onto close weave linen. Original turnovers removed. Original canvas is very open weave with only eight threads per square centimetre. Pressure applied in lining process has made the canvas weave very prominent. Seven member stretcher dates from relining, probably late 20th century. The priming or ground is a red-brown layer, probably oil bound, not very thick, which covers all of the canvas. The dark tones have been applied fairly thinly and the ground tone now shows through where paint is worn. The light tones in areas such as sky, sea and centre foreground are thicker and cover the the ground tone completely and there is less wear here. IR images do not reveal any underdrawing but this could be due to the dark tone of the ground. A pentiment to the upraised arm of the horse rider, centre middle distance was more visible under IR. XRF demonstrated the presence of Prussian blue and lead white in the distant mountain and child's robe, vermilion and red earth in the shattered tree trunk left of centre, Naples yellow in Niobe's robe, Prussian blue mixed with Naples yellow in green foliage lower left and umber in the dark shadows of the tree foliage against sky at centre. In raking light there is some irregularity in the paint surface in the figure behind and to the left of Niobe suggesting Wilson made some changes in the figures here, which might show up on an X-radiograph. Under UV minor retouches are visible over upper and lower left darks, also small retouches elsewhere. Otherwise no major retouched damages visible. Narrow pendant branches in centre sky have been reinforced quite strongly over varnish. 'Signature' is not retouched.