Judy Egerton, in the 1990 Wright of Derby exhibition catalogue, suggested that the present work dates to c.1790-1795, given the parallels between the artist's solid handling of the paint and carefully studied sky, in common with his Landscape with a Rainbow dated 1794 (Derby Art Gallery), in which Wright captures a similar sense of the dramatic, yet natural beauty of the landscape, free of picturesque convention. In the present work, the billowing cumulus clouds convey the transient nature of the moment, while contrasting with the earthy, rutted river-bank, where the lavish impasto has probably been modelled with a palette-knife.
Bedgellert, in North-West Wales, was well-known to artists and travellers in search of the picturesque in the 18th Century, recommended as it was in H.P. Wyndham's Tour of Wales, London, 1781. It is surrounded by some of the highest mountains in Carnaevonshire, and lies 6 miles from the peak of Snowdon, at the point where the foothill rises immediately above the confluence of the little Colwyn with the Gwynen to form the river Glaslyn. The ancient bridge depicted here was largely swept away by a flood in the August of 1799.
The folklore surrounding the area added to the dramatic appeal of Bedgellert; the most famous legend of the region is that of Prince Llewelyn and his dog Gelert, who slew his faithful greyhound Gelert on returning from a day's hunting and finding his baby son's cradle upturned and covered with blood, only to discover after that the child was unharmed under the cradle, and the hound had killed a roving wolf.
As Judy Egerton comments, there is some question, however, as to whether Wright ever visited Bedgellert. Although the artist's Account Book includes two Welsh subjects, they appear to have no connection with the present work. His description of 'A View in Wales. Storm sold to my friend Mr Toms. Tate £31.10.0', seems very unlikely to be the present work, and is as yet untraced, and the other Welsh landscape, described as 'A small picture of Canarvon Castle. Night, £10.10.0' (Manchester City Art Gallery), is taken from Paul Sandby's aquatint of the scene, published in 1776 (see David H. Solkin, 'A Caernarvon Castle by Night' by Joseph Wright of Derby', Burlington Magazine, CXIX, 1977, pp.284-5).
Neither Wright's recorded letters, nor his niece Hannah Wright's Memoir mention any visit to Wales by the artist, and it certainly seems surprising that there are no other known landscapes by Wright in and around the area, given the equally dramatic potential of nearby views in Aberglaslyn and Snowdon. Yet although several artists produced engraved views and watercolours of Bedgellert after Wright's death, none have been identified from his life-time that might have served as a model.
Egerton suggests that Wright may have worked from a sketch made 'on the spot' by a friend of the artist, perhaps even by the Mr Thomas Moss Tate mentioned in his Account Book for the stormy Welsh view; Tate, Wright's pupil and friend, was a Liverpool merchant and keen amateur artist, who could have brought a sketch back from Wales and asked Wright to work up an oil painting.
Whether Wright actually saw Bedgellert remains an open question, but that he realised the powerful visual possibilities of the landscape is undisputed. Its magnificently rendered sky with its distinctive cloud formations evoke a grandeur and sense of the ever changing potential of the natural world, yet remains anchored by the palpably solid presentation of the muddy riverbanks, as the small figure visibly trudges on his path.