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The White Monk - II
National Museum Wales, Cardiff
Richard Wilson (1713/14-1782)
The White Monk - II
Mid-1760s (undated)
Oil on canvas
94 x 132.1 cm
37 x 52 in.
NMW A 5192
P145A
In the foreground two women are resting on the grass while a man brings up an open parasol behind them. A rider descends beyond the bank to their left. In the left foreground is a prominent boulder, against which rests a stick, with others scattered nearby. There are two large trees on the right and in the left middle distance, a wooded cliff with a waterfall, surmounted by a tower with adjoining buildings, and a promontory on the edge of which is silhouetted a wayside cross with two figures in prayer before it. A winding river, town and mountains are seen in the right background.
The Carroll Gallery, 10 George Street, London W.1.; gift of F.J. Nettlefold 1946
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.
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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P144 The White Monk - I, Toledo Museum of Art
P144A Richard Wilson and Studio, The White Monk - I, National Museum Wales, Cardiff
NWP144E Ascribed to Wilson, The White Monk - I, Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, Swansea
P144F The White Monk - I, Private Collection
P146 The White Monk - III, Private Collection
P146A The White Monk - III, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden
P146B 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 religious observants 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 second of three main variants of the composition, two women are shown seated on the ground as a man brings up a parasol for them. There is no sapling behind and to the left of the trees at the right. A wayside cross is silhouetted at the extremity of the cliffs. This version is one of only three known of the second stage of the composition. It is closely linked to a studio painting without the figures by the parasol, recently attributed to William Hodges by Jonathan Yarker (P147). 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).
Grundy & Roe, vol. 4, pp. 148-49, repr. colour; WGC, p. 228 under pl. 122b; Solkin 1982, pp. 66-70, 215
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). Nevertheless the composition does not seem to have been exhibited. 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.
The paint in the sky is very worn and there appear to be three ground layers, which is unusual for Wilson. However, the range of pigments used is normal and X-radiography shows a hill planned for the left side of the composition that has subsequently been abandoned. This suggests that the painting may be Wilson's own work, though in a poor state of preservation.
09/12/2020