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The White Monk - I
Private Collection / Photograph by Matthew Hollow
Richard Wilson (1713/14-1782)
The White Monk - I
Undated
Oil on canvas
46 x 61.2 cm
18 1/8 x 24 1/16 in.
Private Collection, London
P144G
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 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 two religious bowed in prayer before it. A hilltop town and mountains are in the background.
G.P. Dudley Wallis, Manchester [...] bought 2014 by the present owner
Unsigned; no inscription
Boldly painted - essentially a decorative picture
The subject and thence the meaning remain open to multiple interpretations. 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], 1765 The British Museum and other impressions
William Hodges after Wilson, Royal Academy of Arts, London (03/1083)
As noted by Postle, 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 Constable, who recorded that it had sometimes been identified as Tivoli or a lower part of the Aniene gorge. Postle 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, one of the first of three main variant groups 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.
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. Nevertheless the composition does not seem to have been exhibited.
Relined