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Joseph Wright of Derby
A grotto at sunset
Oil on canvas : 101,5 X 127 cm
1774
Northampton (MA), Smith College Museum of Art

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Painting for Sale
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Anonymous 19th century French painter
"A couple visiting a grotto"
In short
 
Cavern interiors are not a very rare theme in European painting, but grottoes holding stalactites and stalagmites definitely are. Probably the oldest painting showing them dates from 1773, but it represents an artificial cavern. Between the 16th and the late 19th century many fake, man-made grottoes have been incorporated in gardens and parks.
Our strange painting shows therefore a very rare motif.
 
About grottoes in Western art
 
Since Antiquity grottoes have been inspiring places: the Roman emperor Tiberius filled a grotto in the grounds of his villa in Sperlonga with statues. 
The final of the in 1589 published and all over Europe immensely popular tragicomedy “Il pastor fido” from Giovanni Battista Guarini (1538 – 1612) is also set in a grotto.
In 17th century paintings caverns were regularly used as exotic dwellings of the hermit Saint Anthony or of classical nymphs. Other painters used them as poetic background for Vanitas scenes set amidst Roman sculptures and columns. 
Strangely enough very few grotto interiors were painted during the following 18th and 19th century.
But it is important to stress here that all these grotto paintings represented caverns without stalactites or stalagmites.
 
Artificial caves that did hold them became a popular garden feature since 16th century Mannerism until well into the 19th century. 
In Bavaria in Germany the most Romantic of kings, Ludwig II, had himself two artificial dripstone caves built in the second half of the 19th century after the first act of the Wagner opera "Tannhäuser":
- in the garden of Linderhof Palace the cave with its lake and waterfall was modelled in 1876/77. This Venus Grotto features a "royal seat", a Lorelei rock and a gilt swan-boat in the shape of a shell.
- on the third floor of Neuschwanstein Castle (1869 – 1887) sits a small grotto between the Living Room and the King’s Study.
 
The oldest painted representation of visitors inspecting a grotto with its characteristic stalactites and stalagmites is to my knowledge the painting by William Tomkins of 1773. But Painshill Grotto in Painshill Park near Cobham, Surrey is an artificial cavern created with quartz, calcite and fluorite crystals in the third quarter of the 18th century. 
 
Why should you buy this painting?
 
Because it is an absolutely mesmerising scene set in a very rare, magical location: visitors in a shimmering grotto interior with the strange forms of rocks, stalactites and stalagmites lit and coloured by one beam of sunlight.
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