Friday, 11 May 2012

Joseph Wright of Derby 1734 - 1797


Self Portrait at 19 years of age (1753)- Derby Museum & Art Gallery - this is a very assured painting for such a young man.
We have recently attended a lecture on Joseph Wright of Derby at our Fine Art Society. I briefly mentioned him and his influence on my own appreciation of art in this post. This has prompted me to, possibly introduce him to you, or may be reacquaint you with him.
He is always known as Wright of Derby, maybe because it was where he was born and lived most of his life. Whether travelling on the Grand Tour to Italy, painting portraits in Liverpool, Bath and London, Derby was the place that took centre stage for him, and the refuge to which he always returned.
A Philosopher Giving a Lecture on the Orrery 1766 - Derby Museum & Art Gallery
This is the painting that had me enthralled as a young girl. On many occasions, when waiting to catch the bus home from school, I would go into the gallery to look at it. The Orrery painting captures the spirit of the Age of Enlightenment.
Consistent with the Orrery's astronomical theme, the partially illuminated faces may represent the phases of the moon, full moon (the children) waxing moon (the man on the left) waning moon (the man on the right) new moon (the figure seen from behind). The figure to the left taking notes is said to be Wright's great friend Peter Perez Burdett, and the Philosopher, John Whitehurst, Lunar member and Horologist.
His paintings were greatly influenced by the group of scientists and industrialists living in the Derby area and surrounding cities, an area known as the "Industrial Midlands". Many of them were members of the Lunar Society, to which he also belonged. He has been acclaimed as the first painter to express the spirit of the Industrial Revolution, however, his most abiding interest was in the effects of light.
Monument in Derby to Joseph Wright showing the orrery. An orrery is a mechanical device that illustrates the relative positions and motions of the planets and moons in the Solar System in a heliocentric model.Though the Greeks had working planetaria, the first orrery that was a planetarium of the modern era was produced in 1704, and one was presented to the Earl of Orrery - whence the name came.
There is a very strong element of realism in Wright's portraiture, and that is why he was not popular with the aristocracy and ladies who wanted their portraits to be flattering.
Dr. Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles. Painting owned by Darwin College, Cambridge University. He was one of the leading intellectuals of 18th C England, and lived in Derby; a man with a remarkable array of interests and pursuits. Erasmus was a respected physician, a well known poet, philosopher, botanist, and naturalist. He devised one of the first formal theories on evolution in Zoonomia, or The Laws of Organic life. He was also a leading member of the Lunar Society. 
Portrait of Sir Richard Arkwright - Private collection. 
Sir Richard was a self-made man, who was a leading Derbyshire entrepreneur of the Industrial Revolution. He is often credited with inventing the spinning frame - later renamed the water frame following the transition to water power. He patented a carding engine that could convert raw cotton into yarn. When he died he left the equivalent of 80 million pounds today. He was extremely proud of this portrait, it showed him exactly as he was, and with a piece of his spinning equipment on the table beside him.
Portrait of Mrs. Andrew Lindington, known to be a "sitter" from Derby, and owned by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, shows her exquisitely worked ivory coloured silk lace shawl. She sports a large bunch of fresh pink roses and lily of the valley, probably supported by a tin funnel placed low in her cleavage. Pink roses represent perfect happiness, and Lily of the Valley means return to happiness; humility. She is wearing a beautifully painted rope of pearls, and is expensively attired.
Three persons viewing a Gladiator statue by candlelight - Private collection. In this picture we again see Wright's friend Peter Perez Burdett.
Wright's paintings showing his great interest in the effects of light range from candlelight pictures, blacksmiths' forges, to fireworks in Rome and the spectacular eruptions of Vesuvius.
Girl reading letter by candlelight with young man peering over her shoulder, and looking rather anxious - Private collection
Two girls dressing a kitten by candlelight - their doll has been abandoned on the table - collection of Kenwood House, London.
The Annual Girandola, at the Castle of St. Angelo, Rome - Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool.
Eruption of Vesuvius seen from Portici in 1774 - collection of University College of Wales, Aberystwyth.
Finally probably Wright's most famous painting - An experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump - National Gallery, London.
This painting depicts a natural philosopher, a forerunner of the modern scientist, recreating one of Robert Boyle's air pump experiments, in which a bird is deprived of air, before a varied group of onlookers. The group exhibits different reactions, but for most of the audience the scientific curiosity overcomes concern for the bird. The central figure looks out of the picture as if inviting the viewer's participation in the outcome. This painting also shows Wright's obsession with the use of light - the light thrown up from the experiment and the lighter silver moonlight coming through the window on the right hand side.

Detail showing the anxiety of the two girls in the group.
all images courtesy wiki-paintings



28 comments:

  1. He certainly was a master of light and detail. Beautifully complied post and so informative. Hard to imagine what it must have been like to grow up being able to view works like these. We are a great distance from art galleries which have any works like this and only rarely does a significant exhibition even visit Australia.

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    1. Dear Karen - I remember seeing a post about your daughter and how she has a love of art. Actually seeing great paintings in the flesh can convey so much more about the painting. However, fortunately, there is a great bonus compensation available to us all from the wonderful art books that are on the market.

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  2. What a genious. At the age of 19 to paint a self portrait. You can see by the look on his face, that he was a very self assured young man.
    I did not know of Joseph wright. I do now. His depiction of showing the air pump with the bird is phenomenal. The little girls dont like it at all..but the subject insists.
    Joseph must have started tuition with some of the best English artists of that era!
    His wants us to see the differece in the light.. very much like Rembrandt.! He loved to accentuate on the light.
    Did he paint the paintings above while in his youth or throuought his life!
    I find Josephs work ,and your commentary of his art all fascinating.
    The painting of the Orreery, and the different phases of the moon. Brilliant. His subjects look so very real.
    A most enlightning wonderful post, I enjoyed it very much
    Thank you Rosemary. I will be looking at more of his work.
    val

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    1. Initially he taught himself by copying prints and engravings. He came from a solidly established middle-class family in Derby. His father being an attorney and Town Clerk. When he was almost 17 he began his formal training by becoming a pupil of Thomas Hudson at his studio in London. Hudson was a sound master of technique; he knew many artists, and had a large collection of prints and drawings which probably furnished his pupils with ideas. Wright stayed for 2 years, and on his return to Derby painted the portrait of himself at the start of this post and others of his family. However, he was dissatisfied with himself and returned to Hudson for a further 15months.
      The painting of the Orrery and the Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump were done when he was in his early 30's.
      Glad you enjoyed the post Val, and thanks for your thoughtful comments.

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  3. Great post, Rosemary.
    There is something about old paintings, I can not explain it properly, that is so fascinating. In my eyes the paintings you show us have their "own glow" and I love to watch them.
    Thanks for sharing.
    Wish you a wonderful weekend.
    Mette

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    1. Dear Mette - I suppose some of the fascination may be because of the clothing, hairstyles, and just a different way and kind of life that is revealed. He was certainly the master of different lighting techniques, and I agree they do have their 'own glow'.
      Thanks for your kind comments, and hope you have a good weekend too.

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  4. lovely paintings, if I were there in the scene of experiment of a bird I'd be the same as the girls :) I'll be happy if you check out my blog too=)

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    1. Thank for your visit - yes, typically girls would have that kind of reaction, whilst the boys look on eagerly to see what will happen next!

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  5. Dear Rosemary -

    Thank you for sharing the best array of Wright of Derby paintings that I've seen yet. I'm always in awe of artists who understand light and shadow to this degree (I think also of the artist La Tour.).

    What is truly remarkable about these paintings is that Wright doubtlessly painted them in broad daylight, but somehow made incredible mental notes about every detail he witnessed in the darkness! That is astounding to realize.

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    1. Dear Mark - I am glad that you enjoyed the selection of the Wright of Derby paintings.
      He also painted many landscapes by moonlight particularly in Derbyshire and the Lake District. Presumably he must have visited and sketched the landscape, and then gone back when there was a full moon to observe the effects. No digital cameras to help him record the event then.
      You may be interested to know that there is a Wright of Derby Moonlight Landscape in the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, in Sarasota.

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    2. I did not know that. I'll have to check it out. Thanks!

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    3. Hope it is worth a trip.

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  6. The capturing of light is just stunning. It looks so photographic to almost make the paintings seem unlikely...fabulous. Thankyou. J

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    1. Dear Janice - You can imagine the impact his paintings must have had at the time. He certainly had a remarkable skill at capturing the different qualities of light from the warm reds of Vesuvius to the pale silvery tones from the moon.

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  7. What a wonderful post, I love the idea that gazing at such fine art proved more interesting as a child than waiting for the bus. I can imagine you lost yourself in the magical light of this painting.
    Paul

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    1. Dear Paul - It did indeed. I can remember to this day the first impact it had on me. I could not believe that anyone could possibly paint anything so beautiful. As you say I was lost in the magical light of the painting.

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  8. What a genius of art, long live Joseph Wright of Derby.

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  9. I am impressed! The first thing that caught my eyes was Wright's ability to paint the light. Some of his paintings are nearly like photographs. On my last visit to London I visited the National Portrait Gallery. Seeing all the paintings and their details fascinated me a lot. And this post brings me that Sunday morning in London to life again. Thank you, I have learnt something and you made me happy! Christa

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    1. Dear Christa - I am glad this post has reminded you of your time at the National Portrait Gallery.
      Wright was unusual in that he was the first artist to record what was going on in the scientific world during the 18th century. Many of his portraits are the members of the Lunar Society - a group made up of the top scientists of the day. I know there are several of his portraits in the National Portrait Gallery along with some of his mezzotints.

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  10. Beautiful trip with slags of history and the culture. I am greeting

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    1. Thank you so much for your visit and lovely comment. I am pleased that you enjoyed the trip and the history of Joseph Wright of Derby.

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  11. Such a beautiful post Rosemary. And the paintings are so gorgeous.
    Have a great weekend

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    1. Dear Marijke - I am delighted that you enjoyed the Wright of Derby paintings. The sun is out here, nice and warm. Hope it is the same with you. Our Paeonia trees will be open this week.

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  12. Hi Mum, I had forgotten, if I knew at all, that you used to pop into Derby Art Gallery to see The Orrery. No wonder I grew up with a love of art. When I lived in London as a student, I used to pop into The National Gallery, whenever I was near Trafalgar Square, just to see Rembrandt's last self portrait.
    Mark is right to compare Wright's work with La Tour. There seems to me to be a strong influence from Caravaggio as well, in the crispness with which he depicts the light and shade on his figures, as opposed to Rembrandt's more painterly treatment.
    I didn't know about the phases of the moon being echoed in the faces. Good post!

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    1. Dear YS - yes, I think that it must be all in the genes. Mark always makes very apposite remarks regarding art, he has a good knowledge. He was right about La Tour, who I believe also used a lot of candlelight in his paintings. Caravaggio, one of your favourite artists, is also an appropriate comparison.
      Glad you enjoyed the post and found it good - that is a real compliment♥

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  13. Thank you for pointing me this way Rosemary. I thoroughly enjoyed the post and the paintings you've highlighted. The painting of the woman is exquisite - I could look at the lace and pearls for a long time and know I would do just that if put in front of the actual painting.

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    1. The portrait of Mrs. Andrew Lindington is beautiful and we can be fairly confident that she actually looked like her painting, as I mentioned he was known as a painter who did people exactly as they looked. The way he has done the lace and pearls are I agree exquisite.

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