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
An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, by Joseph
Wright, 1768, National Gallery, London
Joseph Wright of Derby
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
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."
Wright is notable for his use of Chiaroscuro effect, 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
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.
Self-portrait ca. 1780, oil on canvas, in the Yale Center for British
Joseph Wright was born in Irongate, Derby, the son of John Wright
(1697–1767) an attorney, who was afterwards town-clerk and his wife, Hannah
Brookes (1700–1764); he was the third of their five children. Wright was
educated at Derby grammar school and taught himself to draw by copying prints.
Deciding to become a painter, Wright went to London in 1751 and for two years
studied under a highly reputed portraitist, Thomas Hudson, the master of
Joshua Reynolds. After painting portraits for a while at Derby, Wright again
worked as an assistant to Hudson for fifteen months. In 1753 he returned to
and settled in Derby and varied his work in portraiture by the production of
the subjects with strong chiaroscuro under artificial light, with which his
name is chiefly associated and by landscape painting. In 1756 Wright
re-entered Hudson's studio for 15 months, forming a lasting friendship with
his fellow pupil John Hamilton Mortimer. Wright also spent a productive period
in Liverpool, 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, 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 Naples Wright 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.
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.
Cave at evening, by Joseph Wright, 1774,
Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, Massachusetts
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 The Allen Memorial Art
Museum at Oberlin College. 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 District is Rydal Waterfall of 1795.
Cave at evening (illustration, right) is painted with the same dramatic
chiaroscuro for 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 Wedgwood and 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 Darwin and 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
The Alchemist in Search of the Philosopher's Stone, by Joseph
The Alchemist in Search of the Philosopher's Stone (1771) depicts the
discovery of the element phosphorus by German alchemist Hennig Brand in 1669.
A flask in which a large quantity of urine has 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 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. 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 Revolution of 1789, itself the
culmination of enlightenment thinking. Joseph Priestley, a member of the Lunar
Society, 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
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 Species in 1859.
the orrery memorial
Wright's birthplace at 28 Irongate, Derby is commemorated with a
representation of an
orrery on the
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.
D'Ewes Coke his wife, Hannah, and his cousin Daniel Coke, by Wright, c.
References, notes and sources
^ F. D.
Klingender; quoted in Ellis Waterhouse, Painting in Britain 1530 to
1790, Fourth Edition, New York, Viking Penguin, 1978; p. 285.
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