This charming drawing was made by Richard Wilson at the outset of his transformative Grand Tour and is early evidence of the momentous shift he would make from a career as a portrait painter to one of Europe’s greatest landscape artists. Wilson, unlike most British artists, began his trip to Italy in Venice. In June 1751 Wilson wrote that he had been in the city ‘abt 8 months’ where he had studied Titian ‘as much as ever I could.’ In Venice he made contact with a sequence of significant cultural figures, including Joseph Smith, the British Consul, and the great Venetian landscape painter Francesco Zuccarelli; Wilson also completed a series of portrait commissions of British travellers. It was with another British traveller, William Lock, that Wilson and the painter, Thomas Jenkins, set off from Venice for Rome. The present characteristic drawing was made by Wilson at the outset of this journey and forms one of the first of series of plein air observations that act as a visual itinerary of the trip to Rome.
Almost the first town the trio would encounter on their journey to Rome was Chioggia at the southern entrance of the Venetian lagoon. Wilson’s wonderfully spirited drawing captures an animated scene on the Canal Vena, one of the principal waterways of the town. The stone bridge at the heart of the composition, with the distinctive carved, winged lion of San Marco, is identifiable as the Ponte Vigo. Wilson evidently delighted in recording the distinctive Venetian gondolier crossing the canal and the family group on the quayside. At first sight this group appears to consist of two adult figures in habits – possibly monks - with two children. But Wilson was almost certainly capturing the distinctive local costume; until the nineteenth century, women in Chioggia wore an outfit based on an apron which could also be raised to serve as a veil. The costume was described by the American writer William Dean Howells in his Venetian Life of 1867:
‘The Chiozzotte are the only women of this part of Italy who still preserve a semblance of national costume; and this remnant of more picturesque times consists merely of a skirt of white, which being open in front, is drawn from the waist over the head and gathered under the chin.’
As David Solkin first observed, the attention Wilson places on the figures suggests his lingering interest in portraiture. It was on the journey to Rome that Wilson formulated his distinctive approach to landscape.