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The White Monk - I
City & County of Swansea: Glynn Vivian Art Gallery Collection
Ascribed to Wilson
The White Monk - I
Oil on canvas
36.4 x 48.3 cm
14 5/16 x 19 in.
GV R131
In the foreground two lovers are seated on the grass under a parasol. On the left is a prominent boulder, against which rests a stick. There are two large trees and some saplings on the right, and in the left middle distance, a wooded cliff and promontory, on the edge of which is silhouetted a wayside cross with religious figures before it. Beyond and opposite lies a town on the plain, and there are mountains in the background, one with hilltop buildings.
Swansea 1999
Bequeathed by Richard Glynn Vivian, 1911
Unsigned; no inscription
The subject and thence the meaning remain open to multiple interpretations. David Solkin memorably explained its attraction as a moral landscape by an emblematic interpretation of the Platonic philosophical concept of concordia discors, or the harmonious union of opposing elements, where 'the chaotic multiplicity of nature has yielded to the ordering hand of art.' (Solkin 1982, p. 66). He saw the inclusion of monks on the promontory as reassurance of a world anchored in divinely ordained harmony and reinforcing the moral certitude and authority of the patrician class who patronised the artist.
D344 Banks of the Tiber 1757 Rhode Island Museum of Art, School of Design, Providence
E17 James Roberts after Wilson, The White Monk (Untitled), The British Museum and other impressions
E72/22 Thomas Hastings after Wilson, The White Monk, 1822, The British Museum (1854,0708.79)
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P145 Richard Wilson (1713/14-1782), The White Monk - II, The Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation, Houston
P145A Richard Wilson (1713/14-1782), The White Monk - II, National Museum Wales, Cardiff
P145B Richard Wilson (1713/14-1782), The White Monk - II, Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton
P146 Richard Wilson (1713/14-1782), The White Monk - III, Private Collection
P146A Richard Wilson (1713/14-1782), The White Monk - III, Gemaldegalerie Alta Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden
P146B Richard Wilson (1713/14-1782), The White Monk - III, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
P147 Studio of Wilson, The White Monk - IV, Royal Academy of Arts, London
P147A Ascribed to Wilson, The White Monk - IV (Italian Landscape, with white Monk), Museums Sheffield
As noted by Martin Postle (Wilson and Europe 2014, p.281) Wilson in this composition establishes a characteristic contrast between the constrictions of organised religion and the dolce far niente symbolised by the relaxed figures in the foreground. Postle also posited a more exact setting than previously acknowledged, e.g. by W.G. Constable, who recorded that it had sometimes been identified as Tivoli or a lower part of the Aniene gorge. He proposed the upper Aniene valley, looking east towards the Prenestini mountains and the rocky outcrops of Mentorella and Guadagnolo. This is an area associated historically with a chain of Benedictine monasteries, thus providing context for the presence of monks on the promontory. The White Monk was the most frequently repeated of all Wilson's compositions, a classic 'good breeder' as the artist described them (Wright 1824, p. 33). In this first of three main variants of the composition, two figures are shown seated under the parasol and there is a sapling behind and to the left of the trees at the right. The popular title, The White Monk, was applied first to a print made from a different version of the composition, then belonging to Lady Ford and published in Hastings 1825 (E72/22).
Themes and Variations 1999, pp. 16-17 repr.
The large number of known versions of The White Monk confirm it as one of Wilson's most popular pictures - well over 30 survive, including those made by studio assistants and copyists. All seem to have been executed in Britain after the painter's return from Italy in 1757 and most of them after 1765, when an engraving was published by James Roberts (E17). None, however, seem to have been exhibited during Wilson's lifetime. Three main variant compositions were defined by W.G. Constable, and the present compiler has retained his system, entitling them The White Monk - I, etc.
Relined. The paint layers are in quite a poor condition. There is a network of disfiguring drying cracks over the surface and the whole painting has darkened with age. Technical examination of this painting revealed pigments uncharacteristic of Wilson which suggest that the painting may be by a follower.