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The White Monk - III
The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Photo MMFA. Purchase, John W. Tempest Fund
Richard Wilson (1713/14-1782)
The White Monk - III
c.1770
Oil on canvas
99.8 x 121 cm
40 x 50 in.
1952.1078
P146B
In the foreground two women with a basket are resting on the grass. A man in hat and breeches stands behnd them holding a staff, while a rider descends below the bank to their left. There are two large trees and a sapling on the right and on the left a prominent boulder with a stick leaning against it and others scattered nearby. In the left middle distance is a wooded cliff with a waterfall, surmounted by a ruined building, and a promontory on the edge of which is silhouetted a wayside cross with religious figures in prayer before it. A river, town and mountains are seen in the right background.
Northbrook; with Leggatt, London, 1933; Lord Forteviot; with Leggatt, London, 1952; purchased by Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, John W. Tempest Fund, 1952
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
E68 Anonymous after Wilson, The White Monk, c. 1818, The British Museum and other impressions
E70 Samuel Middiman after Wilson, The White Monk (Landscape with two Pilgrims praying at a wooden Cross on Rocks at the left), 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 Richard Wilson, 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 Richard Wilson, The White Monk - I, Private Collection
P145 Richard Wilson, The White Monk - II, The Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation, Houston
P145A Richard Wilson, The White Monk - II, National Museum Wales, Cardiff
P145B Richard Wilson, The White Monk - II, Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton
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). P146B, the third of the three main variants of the composition, includes a sapling behind and to the left of the trees at the right but no large boulder in the left foreground. It is distinguished by the presence of a hatted man in breeches without a parasol with the two women under the tree 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).
WGC, p. 228 pl. 123a type III, version 2; The Montréal Museum of Fine Arts: Painting, Sculpture, Decorative Arts, 1960
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 the engraving was published by James Roberts (E17 &c.). 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.
07/01/2021