When Joseph Wright arrived in Italy in 1773, he had little experience as a landscape artist, although he had painted several dramatically lit night scenes. During a visit to Naples in October and November 1774, he was inspired to carry out a series of nighttime studies of Mount Vesuvius, which he declared "the most wonderful sight in nature." The last major eruption of the volcano had occurred in 1767, and since that year, according to Sir William Hamilton, "Vesuvius has never been free from smoke, nor ever many months without throwing up red-hot SCORIAE...usually follow'd by a current of liquid Lava." Wright presumably observed effects of this kind while in Naples, but certainly not the extraordinary display that he depicts in the present painting, which shows the white-hot lava shooting high into the sky.
The Huntington painting depicts Vesuvius as seen from Portici, the location of Sir William Hamilton's villa. Earlier, Wright had made a small oil from across the Bay of Naples (L.B. Sanderson collection), but here he moves in closer so that our impression of the fiery mountain becomes more immediate. Nevertheless, we are still located at a distance that makes the volcano a scene to be contemplated, rather than a landscape that we are a part of. Through the selection of this vantage point and in several other respects, Wright sought to enhance the viewer's experience of the sublime, an ancient aesthetic concept that took on new meaning in the eighteenth century. In his influential treatise A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), Edmund Burke defined the sublime ("the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling") as "whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is any sort terrible." He added, "When danger or pain press too nearly, they are incapable of giving any delight, and are simply terrible; but at certain distances, and with certain modifications, they may be, and they are delightful."