About the artwork
In 'Landscape with Diana and Callisto', Richard Wilson, the first successful British landscape painter, demonstrated not only his knowledge and experience of Italian sites but also his classical education. The site is Lake Nemi about twelve miles east of Rome with Mount Calvarone and the town of Nemi in the background. Lake Nemi was a popular destination among Grand Tour travellers and was also known as the mirror of the Roman goddess Diana (in Latin Speculum Dianae). Below the town of Nemi was believed to be a shrine to Diana, who for that shrine had the name Diana Nemorensis, i.e. Diana of the Woods. Wilson used his stay in Italy to sketch in front of ruins and famous Roman sites; two such drawings of Monte Cavo and Lake Nemi by Wilson exist suggesting that Wilson actually visited the lake.
The mythological scene in the foreground serves as a visual link between the landscape and the goddess as described in Ovid's 'Metamorphoses'. Diana's companions were the nymphs, who where known for their chastity. One of these nymphs was Callisto, with whom the king of the gods Zeus fell in love. Callisto, pregnant with Zeus's child had disobeyed her vow, and Wilson depicts the moment when the goddess discovers the pregnancy of her nymph and is expelling her from her kingdom. One can just about discern Callisto, her miniature naked body a luminous spot in the overall composition. She is seated by a tree trunk covering her face with her hands and crying in despair while the standing goddess, in a position of authority and power, delivers the ban on Callisto with one condemning gesture. Callisto's companions seem to be desperately pleading to the goddess for mercy. Some other nymphs in the middle ground are bathing in the lake.
Richard Wilson's success is very important because at the time there was a general bias against British artists painting classical themes or landscapes. Instead, continental painters such as Antonio Canaletto (1697-1768) were much preferred by art dealers as well as collectors and patrons. British landscape painters were commissioned to either imitate works by classical continental masters or to paint portraits of the patricians' country houses. Wilson had all the features that would enable him to gain the trust of the British nobility: he had received an education in the classics while his mother, Alice Wynne of Leeswood was related to some of the most wealthy and influential families of North Wales. After Wilson's initial apprenticeship under the 18th century portrait painter Thomas Wright and an early career as a portraitist, in 1750 he left for Italy where he stayed until 1757. Wilson's education together with his knowledge of the Italian language meant that he was a good companion for the British aristocrats of the Grand Tour, some of whom commissioned work by the artist. During his first years in Italy Wilson imitated the work of contemporary masters but soon turned to works by the French Claude Lorrain (1605-1682). In Italy Wilson most likely painted only on a commission basis and his clients were mainly British travellers on the Grand Tour.
On his return to Britain from Italy, Wilson was the only British artist, until William Marlow (1740-1813), another British landscape artist returned from Italy in 1768, who was able to offer to the domestic market topographical views of Italy. Wilson, though, was never too concerned with the accuracy of these views. In London Wilson attracted the patronage of important members of the aristocracy such as the Earl of Coventry and Henry Hoare of Stourhead. His studio included several paying pupils as well as unpaid apprentices. Wilson was also an advocate of the professional status of artists and a founding member of the Incorporated Society of Artists, set up in 1759. Despite Wilson's success after his return to Britain, in the last stage of his career he suffered from illness and alcoholism. He probably ceased to paint around 1776 and was rescued by his relatives who took him back to his native North Wales where he died in 1782.
Looking at the painting one is hardly aware of the drama taking place in the foreground. The serene classical landscape dominates the composition, reminding us in a sense of the insignificance of human pre-occupations as compared to the eternity of nature. The divided and almost bare tree trunk by which Callisto is sitting is perhaps the only indication of the drama of the scene. Its bareness relates to Callisto's naked, exposed and sinful body. The variation of planes and lines as well as the play between areas of dark and light tones of the same colours reveals Wilson's technical skill. The influence of the landscape artists of 17th century such as the Italian Gaspart Dughet (1615-1675) and the French Claude Lorrain (1605-5-1682) is evident in the pictorial representation of the foliage and the atmosphere of the composition.
Many of the landscape paintings of the18th century conveyed moral and social messages about the supremacy of, and order in, nature. Visual references to ancient civilisations and past times often evoked a nostalgic tone, while ruins had a didactic purpose in teaching 18th century society about the destruction of classical civilisations due to degenerated morals and an emphasis on luxury. In this context one wonders whether Wilson saw the punishment of Callisto as a moral message about disobeying divine rules and order. Her expulsion is similar to that of Adam and Eve from paradise. It is more likely that Wilson's inclusion of the mythological scene combined with the landscape was meant to appeal to a clientele familiar with ancient classical culture. The idyllic life in the land of Arcadia, founded according to mythology by Callisto's illegitimate son Arcas, was an aspiration of the 18th century society and in this painting is represented by the beauty of the landscape and the careless nymphs bathing in the lake. Wilson painted other versions of the same theme as well as the landscape. ‘The Lake of Nemi or Speculum Dianae with Dolbadarn Castle' in the City of Bristol Museum and Art Gallery is very close to the work at the Lady Lever and is probably the last version of the theme painted by Wilson; it was commissioned by Henry Blundell of Ince Hall in Lancashire. A smaller version of the Lady Lever Art Gallery held work was sold to Henry Hoare of Stourhead in 1758 for £30.