Joseph Wright was one of the most interesting and important painters of the late 18th century. Born in Derby on 3rd September 1734, Wright remained closely involved with his home town, where he lived and worked for most of his life. Wright began his career as a local portraitist but quickly established his reputation with a series of striking nocturnal paintings of scientific and industrial scenes which he showed at the annual exhibitions of the Society of Artists in London. Ambitious and business-savvy, Wright made his work available to a wider audience by employing the best engravers to reproduce his paintings as high quality prints.
Wright was one of many artists who sought to raise the standard and reputation of British art in the 18th century and consequently took an active role in the artistic life of the capital. Wright enjoyed considerable influence at the Society of Artists, where he served on the board of directors from 1769 to 1771. He later also exhibited with its rival institution, the Royal Academy. However, like many other artists, including Thomas Gainsborough, Wright quarreled with the Academy over the display and treatment of his paintings and, in a radical demonstration of his independence, set up his own one-man show at Covent Garden in 1785. He was one of the first artists to do so.
The subject matter of many of Wright’s exhibition pieces reflects and engages with national ideas, tastes and concerns, in keeping with 18th century notions of the public value and importance of art. The artistic and literary inspirations behind Wright’s subjects are equally broad, reflecting a natural sense of curiosity and the encouragement of a wide and cosmopolitan network of friends, including several important scientists, thinkers, writers, poets and artists. Conditioned by his upbringing within the intellectual, technologically and commercially dynamic atmosphere of the Midlands, Wright emerged as one of Britain’s most original and enterprising artists, with a unique place at the heart of the Age of Enlightenment.
The relevance of Wright’s art has not diminished over time and continues to attract new audiences. Derby Museums is home to the world’s largest collection of Wright’s work but his art also graces the walls of some of the most famous galleries, including The Hermitage in St Petersburg, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Tate Britain, and the National Gallery of Victoria, Australia.
In our gallery you will find a large range of Wright’s paintings, collected by the museum over the past 130 years with the help of generous public and private donations. The arrangement of the works demonstrates Wright’s remarkable evolution in style and subject matter over the course of his career, alongside a changing display of prints and drawings from the museum archive and a permanent display of the artist’s personal items and artistic equipment.
A Philosopher Giving that Lecture on the Orrery, in which a Lamp is put in the Place of the Sun
Joseph Wright, oil on canvas, exhibited 1766.
A masterpiece of British art, Wright’s celebrated ‘Orrery’ was first exhibited in London in 1766. It was the second of three subject paintings by which he established his reputation as a highly original artist, specialising in the effects of artificial light.
In this picture Wright depicts a contemporary scene of a scientific lecture. A red-gowned philosopher demonstrates the workings of the solar system using a clockwork model known as an Orrery. An oil lamp, its glass jar visible behind the foremost boy’s elbow, replicates the sun’s bright rays. A young girl points to Saturn and the shadow of a moon cast upon its surface, perhaps indicating that the subject of the demonstration is the causes and effects of eclipses.
Scientific lectures and demonstrations presented by traveling scientists were a popular form of public entertainment during Wright’s lifetime. As an artist who showed an early interest in mechanics and science, Wright may have attended lectures on astronomy and pneumatics, among other topics, held at the town hall in Derby during the 1750s and 1760s. These events may have inspired the subject of this painting as well as his later, equally famous, Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump, first exhibited in 1768. Wright’s ‘Orrery’ engages with the ideas presented in such lectures. Isaac Newton’s theory of the universe formed the foundation of 18th century lectures on astronomy. His discovery of the force of gravity explained how the planets moved around the sun. This confirmation that the Earth was not the centre of the solar system changed the way people viewed themselves, their relationship to God and the world around them. Wright’s figures appear to reflect Newton’s theory, their illuminated faces recalling the faces of the planets as they orbit the sun. Light unites them in an understanding of their place within this larger, ordered system. Wright even appears to have modeled his philosopher on Newton.
Wright added the unusual subject of a modern scientific lecture to the popular genre of the ‘conversation piece’, from which ‘The Orrery’ was adapted. Inquiry and learning are made to appear profound and deeply solemn by Wright’s dramatic use of light. By painting such serious and morally minded scenes, Wright aimed to make a place for himself as a serious artist, capable of producing complex works that were both instructive and highly relevant.
The Alchymist, in Search of the Philosopher’s Stone, discovers Phosphorus, and prays for the successful conclusion of his operation, as was the custom of the ancient chymical astrologers
Joseph Wright, oil on canvas, exhibited 1771, reworked and dated 1795.
The ancient practice of alchemy, which died out with the arrival of modern chemistry in the 17th century, was focussed on trying to discover the ‘Philosopher’s Stone’, a substance with the power to bestow immortality and turn ordinary metals into gold. Alchemists were usually philosophers or priests, whose experiments often included intervals for prayer to ensure the success of their task.
Drawing upon such traditions, Wright’s alchemist kneels in awe before a flask from which a jet of phosphorus gas is released ‘and prays for the successful conclusion of his operation.’ Behind him two assistants, until recently engaged in extraction of lead from lead ore, stare on or point in amazement. Phosphorus was first discovered in 1676 and it is perhaps this event that Wright depicts here, the alchemist and his assistants’ ambiguous costume and gothic setting conveying some sense of a historical past.
In a bid to ensure the details of his scene were as authentic as possible, Wright engaged the help of his friends Dr Matthew Turner (died 1789), a surgeon and lecturer in chemistry whom Wright met during his stay in Liverpool, and Peter Perez Burdett (1734-93), a surveyor who appears to have helped Wright to improve his depiction of perspective.
Intriguingly, The Alchymist shares themes common to another of Wright’s paintings, The Hermit, completed a few years earlier. In these vaguely historical works both key characters recall Christian saints. In both cases, as with his Blacksmith’s Shop of 1771, Wright appears to have drawn upon traditional and religious images to elevate and mythologise an otherwise mechanical task.
A Blacksmith’s Shop
Joseph Wright, oil on canvas, dated 1771, exhibited 1772.
Wright produced five paintings on the theme of blacksmith’s shops and iron forges between 1771 and 1773. This is the second of that series, in which Wright elevates the mundane and everyday task of the blacksmith to heroic status.
Wright’s scene is dominated by the bright, hot glow of an iron ingot which illuminates the flushed faces and muscular bodies of the blacksmiths surrounding it. The strong figures of the labouring blacksmiths are contrasted against the youth and fragility of the children beside them and an older man, perhaps a retired smith, who leans on a hammer in an attitude of deep contemplation. The setting of the blacksmith’s shop, in what appears to be a ruined church with a carved angel just visible above the arch of its entrance, lends Wright’s scene a spiritual edge, its arrangement recalling older paintings of the birth of Christ. Here, the industrious labour of the blacksmith is made noble and virtuous, reflecting the moral, religious and commercial values of the time.
Each of Wright’s blacksmith and forge pictures marked a progressive development in his style and technique of painting. His experimental approach, developing texture, light effects and the articulation of space, coupled with a contemporary – if unusual – choice of subject matter, made these paintings highly popular among art collectors. This version was acquired by Robert Alexander, an Edinburgh merchant and banker.
The Widow of an Indian Chief watching the Arms of her Deceased Husband
Joseph Wright, oil on canvas, exhibited 1785.
This painting was one of twenty-five works that Wright produced for his one-man show of 1785; an exhibition that sought to assert the artist’s independence and public reputation following his recent break with the Royal Academy. Wright included an explanation of the picture in the catalogue to his exhibition: ‘This picture is founded on a custom…where the widow of an eminent warrior is used to sit the whole day, during the first moon after his death, under a rude kind of trophy, formed by a tree lopped and painted; on which the weapons of the dead are suspended. She remains in this situation without shelter, and perseveres in her mournful duty at the hazard of her own life from the inclemencies of the weather.’
Wright never traveled to America. Instead, he obtained this information from James Adair’s History of the American Indians (1775), perhaps through his friend William Hayley, the Sussex poet. Like many of the pictures in Wright’s exhibition, this painting focuses on a solitary female figure, reflecting upon her grief with stoic resolve. Her still figure and melancholy pose offer a stark contrast to the violence of the surrounding elements, emphasising her dignity and courage in the face of the ordeal she endures.
The companion to this painting, The Lady in Milton’s Comus, which is now in the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, features another female in distress, her hopes momentarily lifted by the emergence of the moon from clouds. In both these paintings Wright depicted an ocean, reflecting, perhaps, on a broader public sense of loss following Britain’s recent and controversial split with America after the bitter War of Independence of 1776-1783.