Joseph Wright left England for Italy together with his pregnant wife Hannah, his pupil Richard Hurleston, John Downman, and the sculptor James Paine, in November 1773. Travelling by sea, he had arrived in Nice by December, from where he sailed on to Genoa and to Leghorn, then travelling overland to Rome, where he arrived on 3 February 1774. Wright remained in Italy until June the following year, staying principally in Rome, where he was deeply influenced by the grandeur and scale of the remains of ancient Rome and also by the works of the Italian masters. While in Italy he executed relatively few finished oil paintings concentrating instead on absorbing what he was able to see and making numerous sketches and studies that were to form the basis of many of his major pictures on his return to England.
Aside from Rome, it was not surprising that Wright, whose fascination with science and dramatic light effect has been so evident in the industrial scenes of his early career, felt drawn to Naples, where it was possible to witness one of nature's most spectacular events, the eruption of Vesuvius. Wright visited Naples in October and November 1774 noting in his diary of Vesuvius that it was one of the 'most wonderful sights in nature'. It was a sight that was to continue to inspire him for the rest of his career providing the subject for over thirty paintings, among them some of his most celebrated compositions.
In this picture Vesuvius is shown at some distance, from almost as far as the Capo di Posilippo, the light caused by the awe inspiring force of the eruption breaking the calm of an otherwise tranquil moonlit evening. The composition can be compared to those recorded in the collections of Mr George Anson and Major Miller Mundy, thought to have been painted circa 1789-90 (for which see B. Nicholson, Joseph Wright of Derby, Painter of Light, New York, 1968, I, nos. 267 and 269, fig. 99 [the former], II, pl. 294 [the latter]). A variant of this composition of similar size to the present picture was sold at Sotheby's from the collection of Stanley J. Seeger on 14 June 2001, as lot 93.