River Landscape with Ruins


The landscape contains a winding river that passes by a group of ruined castles in the distance. In the foreground is a mass of trees on the left and groups of bushes and small trees in the center and right of the watercolor. The sky is misty with diffused light.

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Dr. Marc Fitch
1982 Leger Galleries, "English Watercolors and Drawings," no. 28

1988 Leger Galleries, "The Fitch Collection," no.30

Artist's dry stamp, lower right verso: Lugt 2622a
Picturesque tours, like those along the River Wye, were promoted by travel books published by Gilpin and others and became popular pastimes in the eighteenth century. Tours in search of scenes identified as picturesque were sought out all over the country, though the River Wye was a very popular destination (W. Gilpin, River Wye 24-34). Gilpin's picturesqe tours in the 1770s took him to northern and southern Wales, the southern coast of England, and western England.
The River Wye, in Wales and England, was a popular destination for pleasure travelers in search of the picturesque scenes depicted by Gilpin. This illustration was most likely the product of one of these trips (W. Gilpin, River Wye).
The landscape depicts a winding river that passes by a group of ruined castles in the distance. In the foreground is a mass of trees on the left and groups of bushes and small trees in the center and right of the watercolor. The sky is misty with diffused light.
William Gilpin is famous for his theories on the picturesque and for the travel books he produced as guides to amateurs for finding picturesque scenes. These books included sketches made by Gilpin either during his tours, or inspired by them shortly afterwards, such as River Landscape with Ruins. The picturesque was a staple aesthetic aspect of romantic culture, falling somewhere in between what was considered to be the beautiful and the sublime. It was a popular movement to produce and capture the picturesque, though there were skeptics on the legitimacy of the picturesque as an aesthetic category. Gilpin’s definition of the picturesque is often vague, and at times may seem self-contradictory. It valued singularity and variety, roughness and a stimulating irregularity. At its core, the definition of a picturesque scene was a scene that looked like a picture. Also, some critics had problems with the accuracy of Gilpin’s illustrations, for he often modified a scene, adding artificial picturesque elements in order to make it what he considered "more picturesque" (J. Roberts, Gilpin). Nevertheless, he earned quite a name for himself, and his first three picturesque books were very successful, amounting to about £400 (M. Andrews, “Gilpin, William" Oxford DNB).

In particular, Gilpin considered the picturesque to have “a peculiar kind of beauty.” One of the main differences between the beautiful and the picturesque is smoothness versus roughness. In the picturesque, variety was valued, as was contrast to the tidy, Euclidean geometry often used in architecture. This explains the picturesque quality seen in illustrations of ruins. Since they are no longer in their original state or look the way they were intended to appear, they have a certain rough quality that makes them an agreeable picturesque subject. Gilpin even goes so far as to promote the artificial creation of ruins to add to the picturesque quality. He believed to make a building picturesque and a fit subject to be painted, "[the artist] must beat down half of it, deface the other and throw the mutilated members around in heaps" (J. Roberts, Gilpin). This may imply that the group of mutilated, decaying ruins depicted in the background of River Landscape with Ruins were artificially added by Gilpin to add to the picturesque quality of the scene. This is also supported by the contrast that they add when viewed against the lively vegetation depicted in the foreground. While the plant life suggests life and vitality, in contrast, the ruins in the background emanate a sense of melancholy and nostalgic loss for the past and what once was whole (C. Barbier, Gilpin). This charming effect of ruins made it a favorite for romantic artists, like Gilpin, looking to add that coveted picturesque quality to their art and also for patrons who enjoyed their evocative, yet somber quality.

Andrews, Malcolm. “Gilpin, William (1724–1804).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford: OUP, 2004. 5 Apr. 2009 .

Barbier, Carl. William Gilpin: His Drawings, Teaching, and Theory of the Picturesque. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1963.

Gilpin, William. An Essay on Prints; Containing Remarks upon the Principles of Picturesque Beauty, the Different Kinds of Prints, and the Characters of the Most Noted Masters; Illustrated by Criticisms upon Particular Pieces; to which are added, some Cautions that may be Useful in Collecting Prints. London: J. Robson, 1768.

Gilpin, William, and Thomas Dudley Fosbroke. The Wye Tour: Or Gilpin on the Wye, with Picturesque

Additions, from Wheatley, Price, &c. and Archaeological Illustrations.
W. Farror, 1826.

Roberts, J. F. A. William Gilpin on Picturesque Beauty: An Essay. Cambridge: Sydney Castle Roberts, UP, 1944.

Rosenthal, Michael, Christiana Payne, and Scott Wilcox, eds. Prospects for the Nation: Recent Essays in British Landscape, 1750-1880. New Haven: Published for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art and the Yale Center for British Art by Yale UP, 1997.

William Gilpin, British, 1724-1804, River Landscape with Ruins, 1770s, pen and black ink with gray wash over graphite on laid paper, 24 x 37.3 cm. (9 1/2 x 14 11/16 in.), Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund, 1988.23.3, NGA.


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