In Weir’s painting, Mount Vesuvius, which had erupted as recently as 1822, appears at center. The domes of the city of Naples are visible in front of the volcano, and the island fortress of Castello dell’Ovo juts out into the bay. Dark shadows in the foreground heighten the effect of the bright light on the monastery buildings and the haze enveloping Vesuvius. Monks, sheep, and visitors, as typical regional subjects, serve to reinforce the “Italian” nature of the scene. Soon after Weir’s visit, other American artists working in Italy, among them Thomas Cole, would also include such figures to enliven a landscape. The characteristically Italian umbrella-shaped stone pine that frames the scene also helps to identify the setting as Mediterranean. Although the early history of Weir’s panel is unknown, Bay of Naples must have reminded its original owners of one of the most beautiful panoramas in the world, rendered by one of the first American artists lured by the splendor of Italy.
Aside from Italian scenes, Weir also painted historical, literary, and religious works, portraits, landscapes, and genre scenes; he is best known for his large painting Embarkation of the Pilgrims, which was installed in the rotunda of the United States Capitol in 1843. Weir spent forty-two years as instructor of drawing at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, where his students included James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Robert E. Lee, William Tecumseh Sherman, and Ulysses S. Grant. He is the father of artists John Ferguson Weir and Julian Alden Weir.