Though probably best known as an author of nonsense rhymes, Lear was also a landscape painter in watercolors and oils. A prolific artist, his surviving works number in the ten thousands. The peripatetic Lear spent the winter of 1846–47 in Rome. In April he left for the south and by May 11 had reached Palermo, where he and his friend John Proby prepared for their tour of Sicily, which Lear had first seen in 1842. On May 20 the two were at Sciacca, and by May 29 they were visiting the ancient ruins at Agrigento. Working there, Lear inscribed a watercolor and made an oil sketch (both Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts), a view of the temple of Hera Lacinia from the northwest. They were in Syracuse from at least June 8 to 12, when Lear dated a watercolor (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool) showing the stone quarries. He inscribed the present small painting of Mount Etna and Catania on June 16, 1847. The following evening, he wrote of his ascent to the cone of the volcano:
At midnight we started on mules & with a light & after two hours climbing reached the snow, beyond which it is necessary to go on foot. Here the trouble begins; fancy two hours of climbing up & slipping down, over the steepest hill of frozen snow. . . . Then we crossed a plain of snow which surround[ed] the cone, & began to climb that, an operation as difficult as the last, as it is nearly perpendicular, & made of fine ash & sulphur, into which you plunge up to your knees at each step. . . . One is amply repaid by the extraordinary scene above—where you look on the whole island of Sicily just like a great pink map in the sky—with the sea round it so blue, & the dark purple triangular shade of the mountains over that part furthest from the sun which rose just before we got to the mouth of the crater. (quoted in Vivien Noakes, "Edward Lear: The Life of a Wanderer," Boston, 1969, pp. 76–78)
Catania was the starting point for visits to Etna, the highest mountain in Italy and the highest volcano in Europe, and Lear was nothing if not disciplined and determined when on the road. He habitually rose at dawn, rested in the middle of the day and traveled into the evening, ate badly, and stayed in inadequate accommodations, working all the while and writing in his journals. Ultimately, the climb up the volcano must have been a moment of joy and satisfaction.
It seems probable that the present sketch, with slight indications of the principal contours in pencil, was begun on the road from Syracuse to Catania, from which Lear looked north over the unforgiving lava fields toward Etna, rising miragelike behind the town against the summer sky. His inscription supports the notion that it was completed in the course of a single day. The cone of the mauve mountain is encircled by a delicate collar of snow, while the lowland is described with long strokes. The mounds of bituminous rock in the foreground are heavily impasted, practically sculpted, in varying tones of dark slate gray and brown. The priming of the canvas has not been completely covered. The image and the artist’s notes describe the sort of punishingly hot, humid weather in which color is intensified by strong light. A related drawing (ill. p. 93 in "Edward Lear (1812–1888): il viaggio come avventura estetica," ed. Alessandro Porro, Milan, 1994) of Catania and the volcano is dated June 18. Lear was still in Sicily on June 27, 1847, when he inscribed a study of trees beside the sea at Taormina (private collection).
[2012; adapted from Baetjer 2009]