For full functionality of this site it is necessary to enable JavaScript. Here are the instructions how to enable JavaScript in your web browser.
Works Thomas Girtin after Herman van Swanevelt

A River Scene with a Castle on a Cliff


Primary Image: TG1914: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), after Herman van Swanevelt (1603–55), A River Scene with a Castle on a Cliff, 1801, graphite and watercolour on laid paper, 30.9 × 52 cm, 12 ⅛ × 20 ½ in. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection (B1975.3.1209).

Photo courtesy of Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection (Public Domain)

Artist's source: Herman van Swanevelt (1603–55), etching, The Castle on a Rock for Paysages Ornés de Fabriques, 1644–50, 19 × 27.6 cm, 7 ½ × 10 ⅞ in. Petit Palais, Musé des Beaux Arts de la Ville de Paris (GDUT8946).

Photo courtesy of Petit Palais, Musée des Beaux Arts de la Ville de Paris (CC0 1.0 Universal)

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802) after Herman van Swanevelt (1603-1655)
  • A River Scene with a Castle on a Cliff
Medium and Support
Graphite and watercolour on laid paper
30.9 × 52 cm, 12 ⅛ × 20 ½ in

‘Girtin Paris 1801’ lower left, vertically, by Thomas Girtin

Object Type
Studio Watercolour; Work from a Known Source: Foreign Master
Subject Terms
Castle Ruins; Hills and Mountains; River Scenery

Catalogue Number
Girtin & Loshak Number
458 as 'Romantic Landscape'
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2001


Leonard Gordon Duke (1890–1971); bought from him by Thomas Girtin (1874–1960), 1928, £60; given to Tom Girtin (1913–94), c.1938; bought by John Baskett on behalf of Paul Mellon (1907–99), 1970; presented to the Center, 1975

Exhibition History

London, 1962a, no.169; Reading, 1969, no.49; New Haven, 1986a, no.88 as ’Romantic Landscape’


Davies, 1928, p.221; Morris, 1986, p.18; YCBA Online as 'Romantic Landscape' (Accessed 21/09/2022)

About this Work

This is one of three landscapes that Girtin produced in the first month of his stay in Paris from etchings by the seventeenth-century Dutch landscape artist Herman van Swanevelt (1603–55) (the others being TG1913 and TG1915). Girtin arrived in the French capital at the end of November 1801 and presumably acquired the etchings almost immediately, as he inscribed each of the watercolours ‘Girtin Paris 1801’. Why Girtin chose to mark his arrival in France by copying etchings of imaginary classical landscapes is far from clear, though he had by this date probably already made a number of copies after prints by earlier artists, such as Marco Ricci (1676–1730) (including TG1916). Girtin had travelled to France with his London panorama, hoping to put it on display, and it may be that with no other plans in mind – the idea for a set of prints of Paris views came later – he turned to a secondary source for inspiration, having been disappointed by the potential of French scenery as a subject. As he later noted in a conversation with Thomas Holcroft (1745–1809), the ‘landscapes of France’ were ‘spotty, naked, having no hedges and trees … with few grand masses, ragged broken lines, little verdure, and a prevailing grey tone’ – altogether unsuited to an artist like Girtin, in other words (Holcroft, 1804, vol.2, p.492).1

Swanevelt’s etching House on a Rock (see the source image above) provided everything the landscape of northern France lacked, though Girtin still set about simplifying the composition. The watercolour, which conforms to one of the standard sizes of his late works, roughly 30.5 × 53.3 cm (12 × 21 in), is larger than the print, which measures 19 × 27.6 cm (7 ½ × 10 ⅞ in), but the artist reduced the number of figures and opened up the landscape, creating a lighter and more picturesque scene in consequence. More particularly, he greatly expanded the extent of the river in the foreground, and made it meander into the distance. As Girtin again noted to Holcroft, ‘water was wanting’ too often in the scenery of France, and, given that this was ‘to him an almost insuperable defect’, he presumably felt no compunction in transforming Swanevelt’s mean stream into something that might properly ‘form a picture’ (Holcroft, 1804, vol.2, p.498). Compared to the other bright and freshly coloured watercolours produced after Swanevelt’s etchings, this altogether more sombre image has faded somewhat, with the loss of some of the blues, whilst the foliage of the central tree has changed to yellow. 


A Wooded River in an Extensive Landscape



A Wooded Landscape, with a Hermit


1800 - 1801

An Italianate Landscape with Two Monks


by Greg Smith


  1. 1 Holcroft’s unique eye-witness account of Girtin at work during the excursions they undertook in and around Paris in the early spring of 1802, published in the second volume of Travels from Hamburg, through Westphalia, Holland, and the Netherlands, to Paris, is transcribed in the Documents section of the Archive (1802 – Item 1).

Revisions & Feedback

The website will be updated from time to time and, when changes are made, a PDF of the previous version of each page will be archived here for consultation and citation.

Please help us to improve this catalogue

If you have information, a correction or any other suggestions to improve this catalogue, please contact us.