- Joseph Wright of Derby
Joseph Wright (
3 September 1734- 29 August 1797), styled Wright of Derby, was an English landscape and portrait painter. He has been acclaimed as "the first professional painter to express the spirit of the Industrial Revolution." [F. D. Klingender; quoted in Ellis Waterhouse, "Painting in Britain 1530 to 1790," Fourth Edition, New York, Viking Penguin, 1978; p. 285.]
Wright is notable for his use of
Chiaroscuroeffect, which emphasises the contrast of light and dark, and for his paintings of candle-lit subjects. His paintings of the birth of science out of alchemy, often based on the meetings of the Lunar Society, a group of very influential scientists and industrialists living in the English Midlands, are a significant record of the struggle of science against religious values in the period known as the Age of Enlightenment.
Many of Wright's paintings are owned by the Derby city council, and are on display at the
Derby Museum and Art Gallery, from where they are occasionally loaned to other galleries.
, from 1768 to 1771, painting portraits. These included pictures of a number of prominent citizens and their families.
Wright married Ann (also known as Hannah) Swift, the daughter of a leadminer, on 28 July 1773 [cite web | title = Joseph Wright of Derby Biograph | url = http://www.mezzo-mondo.com/arts/mm/wright/wright.html | accessdate = 2007-12-01 ] , and at the end of that year visited
Italy, where he remained till 1775. Wright and his wife had six children, three of whom died in infancy. While at NaplesWright witnessed an eruption of Mount Vesuvius, which formed the subject of many of his subsequent paintings. On his return from Italy he established himself at Bath as a portrait-painter, but meeting with little encouragement he returned to Derby, where he spent the rest of his life. He became increasingly asthmatic and nervous about the house, and for these complaints he was treated by his friend Dr. Erasmus Darwin. Ann Wright died on 17 August 1790. On 29 August 1797 Wright died at his new home at No. 28 Queen Street, Derby, where he had spent his final months with his two daughters. [cite web | title = Joseph Wright of Derby Biograph | url = http://www.mezzo-mondo.com/arts/mm/wright/wright.html | accessdate = 2007-12-01 ]
Wright was a frequent contributor to the exhibitions of the Society of Artists, and to those of the
Royal Academy, of which he was elected an associate in 1781 and a full member in 1784. He, however, declined the latter honour on account of a slight which he believed that he had received, and severed his official connection with the Academy, though he continued to contribute to the exhibitions from 1783 until 1794.
From 1765 Wright exhibited in London, annually at the Society of Artists, 1765–76, then less regularly from 1778 to 1794 at the Royal Academy. Wright also exhibited in 1778 and 1783 at the Free Society of Artists, and in 1784 and 1787 at the Society for Promoting the Arts in Liverpool. The label Wright of Derby was first bestowed on him by the Gazetteer's exhibition reviewer of 1768. In an age when it would have been improper to use artists' Christian names, it was necessary to differentiate between the work of two ‘Mr Wrights’ — Joseph Wright, who began exhibiting in 1765, and Richard Wright, of Liverpool, an exhibitor since 1762. Bestowed for convenience, the label Wright of Derby has stuck to this day.
Wright is seen at his best in his candlelit subjects of which the "Three Gentlemen observing the 'Gladiator'" (1765), his "
A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery" (1766), in the Derby Museum and Art Gallery, and " An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump" (1768), in the National Gallery are excellent examples. His "Old Man and Death" (1774) is also a striking and individual production.
Joseph Wright of Derby also painted "Dovedale by Moonlight", capturing the rural landscape at night with a full moon. It hangs in Houston's Museum of Fine Arts. Its companion piece, "Dovedale by Sunlight" (circa 1784-1785) captures the colors of night. In another "Moonlight Landscape", in the
John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota Florida, equally dramatic, the moon is obscured by an arched bridge over water, but illuminates the scene, making the water sparkle in contrast to the dusky landscape. Another memorable image from his tour of the Lake Districtis "Rydal Waterfall" of 1795.
"Cave at evening" ("illustration, right") is painted with the same dramatic
chiaroscurofor which Joseph Wright is noted. The painting was executed during 1774, while he was staying in Italy.
Painting the British Enlightenment
Wright had extensive contacts with the new industrialists of the Midlands; two of his most important patrons were
Josiah Wedgwoodand Richard Arkwright(pottery and cotton, respectively). One of Wright's students, William Tate, was uncle to the eccentric gentleman tunneler Joseph Williamson and completed some of Wrights works after his death. Wright also had connections with Erasmus Darwinand other members of the Lunar Society, which brought together leading industrialists, scientists, and philosophers. Although meetings were held in Birmingham, Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles Darwin, lived in Derby, and some of the paintings by Joseph Wright of Derby, which are themselves notable for their use of brilliant light on shade, are of, or were inspired by, Lunar Society gatherings.
An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump" (1768), shows people gathered round observing an early experiment into the nature of air and its ability to support life.
The Alchemist in Search of the Philosopher's Stone" (1771) depicts the discovery of the element phosphorusby German alchemist Hennig Brandin 1669. A flask in which a large quantity of urinehas been boiled down is seen bursting into light as the phosphorus, which is abundant in urine, ignites spontaneously in air.
A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery" shows an early mechanism for demonstrating the movement of the planets around the sun. The Scottish scientist James Ferguson(1710 - 1776) undertook a series of lectures in Derby in July 1762 [cite web | title = Joseph Wright of Derby: Art, the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution | url = http://www.search.revolutionaryplayers.org.uk/engine/resource/exhibition/standard/default.asp?resource=5230
accessdate = 2007-11-23 ] [ See article: cite web | last = Baird | first = Olga | coauthors = Malcolm Dick | title = Joseph Wright of Derby: Art, the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution | url = http://www.search.revolutionaryplayers.org.uk/content/files/81/76/355.rtf | accessdate = 2007-11-23 .] based on his book "Lectures on Select Subjects in Mechanics, Hydrostatics, Pneumatics, Optics &c". (1760). To illustrate his lectures, Ferguson used various machines, models and instruments. Wright possibly attended these talks, especially as tickets were available from John Whitehurst, Wright's close neighbour, a clockmaker and a scientist. Wright could also have drawn on Whitehurst’s practical knowledge to learn more about the orrery and its operation.
These factual paintings are considered to have metaphorical meaning too, the bursting into light of the phosphorus in front of a praying figure signifying the problematic transition from faith to scientific understanding and enlightenment, and the various expressions on the figures around the bird in the air pump indicating concern over the possible inhumanity of the coming age of science [ See article: cite web | last = Baird | first = Olga | coauthors = Malcolm Dick | title = Joseph Wright of Derby: Art, the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution | url = http://www.search.revolutionaryplayers.org.uk/content/files/81/76/355.rtf | accessdate = 2007-11-23 .] These paintings represent a high point in scientific enquiry which began undermining the power of religion in Western societies. Some ten years later, some scientists would find themselves persecuted, or even put to death in the backlash to the
French Revolutionof 1789, itself the culmination of enlightenment thinking. Joseph Priestley, a member of the Lunar Society and discoverer of oxygen, left Britain in 1794 after his Birmingham laboratory was smashed and his house burned down by a mob objecting to his outspoken support for the French Revolution; His French colleague, Antoine Lavoisier, would be executed at the guillotine. The politician and philosopher Edmund Burke, in his famous "Reflections on the Revolution in France" (1790), tied natural philosophers, and specifically Priestley, to the French Revolution, writing that radicals who supported science in Britain "considered man in their experiments no more than they do mice in an air pump". In light of this comment, Wright's painting of the bird in the air pump, completed over twenty years earlier, seems particularly prescient.
It was against this background that
Charles Darwin, grandson of the Derby man and Lunar Society member, Erasmus Darwin, would add to the conflict between science and religious belief half a century later, with the publication of his book The Origin of Speciesin 1859.
Wright's birthplace at 28 Irongate, Derby is commemorated with a representation of an
orreryon the pavement nearby.
Joseph Wright was buried in the grounds of
St Alkmund's Church, Derby. The Church was controversially demolished in 1968 to make way for a major new section of the inner ring road cutting through the town centre, and now lies beneath the road. Wright's remains were removed to Nottingham Road Cemetery. In 1997, his tombstone was placed at the side of Derby Cathedral, and in 2002 it was brought inside and wall-mounted in a prominent place near the well-visited memorial to Bess of Hardwick. [cite web | title = Photographs around Iron Gate & Sadler Gate in Derby City Centre, England | url = http://www.derbyphotos.co.uk/areas_city/irongate.htm | accessdate = 2007-12-01 ]
Georges de La Tour
Derby Museum and Art Gallery
References, notes and sources
*"Joseph Wright of Derby: painter of light", 2 vols, B. Nicolson, (1968)
*"The life and works of Joseph Wright, commonly called ‘Wright of Derby’", W. Bemrose, (1885)
*"Wright in Italy", D. Fraser, (1987)
*"Joseph Wright of Derby", J. Wallis, (1997)
*"‘Wright of Derby: Gothick realist’" in "Art News [USA] ", R. Rosenblum, , 59/1 (March 1960), 24–7, 54
*"‘Addenda to Wright of Derby’", B. Nicolson, Apollo, 88 (1968), suppl. "Notes on British art", 12, pp. 1–4
*"‘Wright of Derby: addenda and corrigenda’", B. Nicolson, Burlington Magazine, 130 (1988), 745–58
*"Joseph Wright of Derby: Das Experiment mit der Luftpumpe: eine heilige Allianz zwischen Wissenschaft und Religion", W. Busch, (Frankfurt am Main, 1986)
*"Painting for money: the visual arts and the public sphere in eighteenth-century England", D. H. Solkin, 214–46 (1993)
* Andrew Graciano, “‘The Book of Nature is Open to All Men’: Geology, Mining and History in Joseph Wright’s Derbyshire Landscapes” The Huntington Library Quarterly (68: 4, 2005), 583-600.
* Andrew Graciano, “Shedding New Botanical Light on Joseph Wright’s Portrait of Brooke Boothby: Rousseauian Pleasure versus Medicinal Utility” Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte (3:2004), 365-380.
* Andrew Graciano, ed., "Visualising the Unseen, Imagining the Unknown, Perfecting the Natural: Art and Science in the 18th and 19th Centuries", Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008.
* [http://www.derby.gov.uk/LeisureCulture/MuseumsGalleries/Wrights_to_view.htm Derby Museum and Art Gallery]
* [http://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/walker/collections/18c/derby-hesketh.asp 'Fleetwood Hesketh' (1769)]
* [http://www.getty.edu/art/gettyguide/artMakerDetails?maker=697&page=1 Getty Museum profile]
* [http://www.ringling.org/ John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art]
* [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D-DnH0EU0mc Joseph Wright tribute "The Origin of Painting" by
Disinformation (art and music project)]
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