Tivoli, in the Sabine hills to the east of Rome, was from the seventeenth century a favorite destination for artists. The grandeur of its landscape, with its evocations of ancient glory, also made it a major destination for foreign visitors on the Grand Tour. Like the artist seen sketching in this picture, Richard Wilson, who was in Italy in the 1750s, must have passed many pleasurable hours drawing the dramatic site, with its distinctive round Temple of Vesta, known as the Temple of the Sibyl. Tivoli and the Campagna (countryside) had also figured in the works of Claude Lorrain and Gaspard Dughet. Wilson’s composition derives unmistakably from their classical landscapes: a wedge of land framed by a tree, the hillside view of Tivoli, and the vista of the low plain as it extends toward Rome.
The Kimbell painting—a variant of a composition the artist first painted in 1752—was made after Wilson’s return to Britain. By introducing the ideal landscape to the next generation, he played a major role in establishing the British school of landscape painters. Even John Constable, who professed no need to go to Italy, was influenced by Wilson and spoke of how his work “still swims in my brain like a delicious dream.” The young J. M. W. Turner’s debt was explicit: many years before he made his own trip to the Roman Campagna, he copied the Kimbell painting, though omitting the large tree and figures (c. 1798, Tate, London).