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Apollo destroying the Children of Niobe
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Studio of Wilson
Apollo destroying the Children of Niobe
Mid-1760s (undated)
Oil on canvas
127 x 178.1 cm
50 1/8 x 70 1/8 in.
Apollo, with Artemis behind him, is shooting the children of Leto (Latona) with arrows from the cloud at the left. Niobe stands at the centre of the main group of figures, who are being destroyed all around her. The highly dramatic landscape setting conveys the mood at least as much as the figures themselves.
BI 1817 (47 - lent Robert Udney); BI 1832 (7 - lent H.A.J. Munro); New York, World's Fair, Masterpieces of Art, May - October 1940 (158); Cambridge, Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, Sense and Sensibility, 30 April - 31 May 1965 (38); Boston, Museum of Fine Arts, 28 August - 12 December 1978, English Paintings from the Storerooms
Commissioned by Sir Peter Leicester, 4th Baronet (1732-1770), Tabley House, Knutsford, Cheshire; his son, Sir John Fleming Leicester, created Lord de Tabley, 1826; bt by John Parke, oboist by 1803; bt by Thomas Lister Parker (1779-1848), Browsholme Hall, Yorkshire, antiquary and collector by 1804 for 300 guineas; Hon. Charles Francis Greville (d. 1809); Christie's, Greville sale 31 March 1810 (99), bt for 205 guineas by Col. Robert Udney; H.A.J. Munro of Novar by 1832; Christie's, Munro sale, 26 March 1860 (145); bt for £162-15-0 by Henry Wallis (d. 1892); by 1895 James Orrock, Bedford Square, London; probably Orrock-Linton sale, Christie's 25-27 April 1895 (321, bt in); Christie's, Orrock sale 4 June 1904 (144); bt for 95 guineas by S.T. Smith and Son, 37, Duke Street St, St James's, London; by 1906 with Blakeslee Galleries, New York; by 1917, Denman Waldo Ross, Cambridge, MA., USA; given to the Museum of Fine Arts and accessioned 15 February 1917
Unsigned; no inscription
[1] Lower left corner in red ink inverted: F558
[1] Verso lower left.: Masterpieces of Art, Art Associates Inc., Street of Wheels, New York World's Fair, N.Y. [n.d. = 1940] Cat. No. 158
[2] Verso lower right: Museum frame exchange label
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.
D53/35 Niobe from An Italian Sketchbook Victoria & Albert Museum Sketchbook p. 35
D325 The Children of Niobe, The British Museum (1847,0723.107)
D355 Recumbent Male Nude, National Museum Wales, Cardiff (NMW A 1885)
D369 Ascribed to Wilson, Landscape Study, Victoria & Albert Museum
E52 William Sharp and Samuel Smith after Wilson, Niobe, 1788, National Museum Wales, Cardiff (NMW A 11416)
E54 William Sharp and Samuel Smith after Wilson Niobe, 1792, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, New Haven
E54A William Sharp and Samuel Smith after Wilson, Niobe, 1792, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
E58 William Sharp and Samuel Smith after Wilson, Niobe, 1803, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne (1577/3)
E65 William Pengree Sherlock after Wilson, Niobe, c.1820, The British Museum
E79/1 Samuel Lacey after Wilson, Niobe, The British Museum
E79/3 John Charles Varrall after Wilson, Niobe, (The National Gallery) No. 1
E86 William James Linton after Wilson, Destruction of the Children of Niobe, The British Museum
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An exercise in Sublime landscape. A version of the subject was famously criticised by Sir Joshua Reynolds in his Discourse XIV (1788): 'Our late ingenious academician, Wilson, has, I fear, been guilty, like many of his predecessors, of introducing gods and goddess, ideal beings, into scenes which were by no means prepared to receive such personages. His landskips were in reality too near common nature to admit supernatural objects. In consequence of this mistake, in a very admirable picture of a storm, which I have seen of his hand, many figures are introduced in the fore-ground, some in apparent distress, and some struck dead, as a spectator would naturally suppose, by the lightning; had not the painter, injudiciously (as I think) rather chosen that their death should be imputed to a little Apollo, who appears in the sky, with his bent bow, and that those figures should be considered as the children of Niobe.'

In the case of the present version, Joseph Farington recorded in 1802 that he had 'called with Daniell at Parke's in Dean Street, and saw a Niobe, by Wilson, painted for Sir Peter Leicester.' (Diary, 2 March 1802). His son, Sir John Fleming Leicester had sold the picture to John Parke (1745-1829), who was collecting paintings on a large scale. He was the principal oboist of England and played in the Duke of Cumberland's band at Covent Garden, where Wilson had had his studio. Farington later reported that according to Northcote, Parke had paid 300 guineas for the picture, adding 'It is dearly purchased not being of Wilson's first quality.' (Diary, 22 June 1803). Cumberland was also the owner of P90 The Destruction of the Children of Niobe, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, New Haven, which, according to Farington, he had unsuccessfully offered to Sir John Leicester for £500 (Diary, 2 May 1806).
Phillis Wheatley, 'Niobe in Distress for her Children' in Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, Boston, 12 June 1773; Booth Notes Doc. 5, p. 1; Farington Diary, vol. 5, p. 1754, vol. 6, p. 2062 (22 June 1803); vol. 7, p. 2743 (7 October 1804); Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Catalogue of Paintings, 1921, no. 462 (attributed); W. Pach et al., Catalogue of European & American Paintings 1500-1900; Whitley 1800-1820, p. 296; exh. cat., New York, World's Fair, Masterpieces of Art, 1940 p. 110, no. 158; WGC, p. 162, pl. 18 (version 3 of lost Beaumont - National Gallery picture); R. Paulson, Literary Landscape Turner and Constable, 1982, p. 53, pl. 21; M. Paley, The Apocalyptic Sublime, 1986, p. 102, pl. 51; K. Baetjer, Glorious Nature: British Landscape Painting 1750-1850, 1993, p. 19; E.K. Waterhouse, Painting in Britain 1530-1790, 1994, p. 237, pl. 184 (Tate version); W. Vaughan, British Painting: The Golden Age, 1999, pp. 224-25, pl. 161 (Yale Center for British Art version)
This painting is a larger version of P90B (ex-National Gallery destroyed) that differs in the distribution of light and shade and in the landscape details.
Relined. Backed in foamboard. In early twentieth-century classical frame. The Orrock-Linton catalogue of 1895 gives a description of the figures but at some later date the foreground figures were overpainted and made into rocks and Apollo and Artemis were hidden by a dark cloud. The painting was then known as The Storm. The repaints were removed in 1935.