The present picture is an illustration of the ballad 'Edwin and Angelina' in Oliver Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield, first published in 1766:
Turn, gentle hermit of the dale
And guide my lonely way,
To where yon taper cheers the vale
With hospitable ray.
John Martin, born in Northumberland in 1789, was apprenticed to a Newcastle coach-painter in 1804, and by 1806 had moved to London, supporting himself by painting china and glass. He sent the Royal Academy his first pictures in 1811 and soon became known for his appropriation of 'the sublime', reflecting the nineteenth century preoccupation with grandiose biblical and romantically heroic subjects from literature. In his own words, he sought to avail himself of 'all objects afforded by inanimate nature, as well as the passions and ingenuity of man, by bringing before the eye the vast and magnificent edifices of the ancient world, its forests, wilds, interminable plains, its caverns and rocks and mountains...' Goldsmith's ballad Edwin and Angelina would have appealed to Martin as a description of a romantic and moral struggle offset by the harsh wilderness in which it occurred. Angelina, thinking her scorned suitor Edwin has died of a broken heart, disguises herself as a male pilgrim. On her journeys she meets a hermit and tells him the story of her disappointed love. The hermit, thinking her a man, advises Angelina to abjure women, but on revealing her identity, the hermit in turn declares himself to be Edwin and the lovers are reunited.
Another version of this painting, 11½ x 17½ in., signed and dated 1816, was in the collection of Mrs Robert Frank (exh. John Martin, Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle, 1970, no. 5; Landscape in Britain, Tate Gallery, 1973, no. 275, p. 115; and Hazlitt, Gooden & Fox, 1975, no. 10, pl. 10). One or other of these was presumably the work exhibited at the British Institution in 1817, no. 200, as The Hermit. A larger version was also exhibited there in 1843, no. 211, as Goldsmith's Hermit.