Joseph Wright of Derby
English Painter Famous for Use of Tenebrism/Chiaroscuro.

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An Experiment on a Bird
in the Air Pump (1768)
National Gallery, London.

Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797)


Artistic Studies
Candlelight Period of Genre Paintings

The Orrery (1766) Derby Art Gallery

For pigments used by Joseph Wright,
see: Colour Palette Eighteenth Century


One of the best English painters ever, the highly original artist Joseph Wright - active mainly in the Midlands - was a portraitist, landscape and genre painter. Although he studied the Renaissance masters in Italy for 2 years, he is best known for his genre painting - mostly scenes from the British industrial revolution. His most memorable paintings are of darkened workshop interiors and scenes of scientific experiments. He was strongly influenced by 17th century Dutch Realist genre painting, in particular by the candlelit scenes popular with the Utrecht followers of Caravaggio. He was also the first significant contributor to English Figurative Painting to be based outside London (he spent most of life in Derby), and his versatile painting technique, use of chiaroscuro and tenebrism, as well as his innovative subject choice, ensured his position as one of the leading members of the Romanticism movement. Wright's best known paintings include The Orrery (1766, The Derby Museum) and An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768, National Gallery London).

For biographies of figurative
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Finest equestrian painter
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For top creative practitioners, see:
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For the greatest genre-painting, see:
Best Genre Painters.

Artistic Studies

Wright was born in Derby in 1734, his family were middle class and in a financially secure situation. Educated at a local grammar school, Wright taught himself how to draw by copying prints. In 1751, he moved to London to study under the portrait painter Thomas Hudson (1701–79), another pupil of whom was Joshua Reynolds (1723-92), the future President of the Royal Academy London. In 1756, Wright returned to Derby and set up as a portrait painter, developing interesting chiaroscuro effects after seeing works by the Utrecht Caravaggisti. Caravaggism describes the group of Baroque artists, mainly active in the Dutch city of Utrecht during the 17th century, who were followers of the great Italian Mannerist painter Caravaggio.

Important members of this group were Gerrit van Honthorst (1592-1656), Dirck van Baburen (1595-1624) and Hendrick Terbrugghen (1588-1629). Their most direct influence was on the Dutch artist Rembrandt (1606–69), who as a portrait painter became a master of depicting light and shadow. Wright painted several portraits of family and friends at this time, including an early Self-Portrait (1753).


Candlelight Period of Genre Paintings

During what is known as his 'candlelight period' (up until 1769), Wright produced his three greatest genre paintings. These were: Three Persons viewing 'The Gladiator' by Candlelight (1765, private collection); The Orrery (1766, The Derby Museum) and An Experiment on a Bird in the Airpump (1768, National Gallery, London).

In The Orrery, Wright depicts a scientist using an Orrery to demonstrate the workings of the solar system. An artificial light has been placed in the position of the sun, and the 'rays' shine out on the group of middle class people who are gathered around. The light acts as a metaphor for the age of Enlightment. At the time, Newton's discovery that the planets revolve around the sun and not the earth was still new. Along with his Bird in the Air Pump (which was an experiment demonstrating the importance of air in supporting life), The Orrery is one of the artist's most famous paintings and illustrates his pre-occupation was with the education of the newly emerging middle class and the range of dramatic effects possible with artificial light. Wright had connections with Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles) and the Lunar Society, which brought together leading scientists and industrialists. Two of his most important patrons came from this group, Josiah Wedgwood (of pottery fame) and Richard Arkwright (cotton industrialist).


Between 1773 and 1775, Wright carried out a study visit to Italy, and was particularly influenced by the landscape painting of Claude-Joseph Vernet (1714-89), a French painter who was working in Rome at the time. Vernet's sunsets, moonlight scenes and shipwrecks displayed a mastery of atmospheric light. This encouraged Wright to paint Italian landscapes in the same manner, with nocturnal light effects, such as the Vesuvius in Eruption, with a View over the Islands in the Bay of Naples (1776-80, Tate Gallery). On his return to England in 1775, the artist hoped to establish himself as a fashionable portrait painter in Bath - particularly since a potential rival, Thomas Gainsborough (1727–88) had just left town. Two years later, without much success, he returned to Derby, where he remained the rest of his days.


Even though Wright enjoyed landscape paintings, they remained largely unsold. Portrait art continued to be his primary source of income for most of his life. His best pictures date from the 1780s and include Sir Brooke Boothby (1781, Tate Gallery, London). Boothby was a Derby landowner and intellectual. He is depicted lying down by a stream holding a book entitled Rousseau. Boothby had published the Swiss philosopher’s autobiographical dialogues. There is a height of realism in Wright's portraits, but the brushstrokes are soft and romantic. Wright's Indian Widow (1785, Derby Museum) was inspired by reading James Adair's History of the American Indian. The widow, sits alone on a mountain top, she looks like a classical figure from antiquities sculpture - an overture perhaps to international Neoclassicism. The volcano in the background was more to do with the one he saw in Italy, than it had to do with North America.


Wright contributed regularly to the exhibitions of the Society of Artists, and to the London Royal Academy. He was elected a full member of the Academy in 1784 but because of a quarrel over the display of his paintings, he declined the invitation. He died in 1797 at the age of 63, stricken with ill health and clinical paranoia. Original, if outside the mainstream, his painting has often been compared to the French artist and melodramatic genre-painter Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725–1805). Other Romantic artists in England who were influenced in part by Wright's work included JMW Turner (1775-1851) and Samuel Palmer (1805-81). The most extensive collection of his work resides in the Derby Art Gallery, although he is also represented in the best art museums across Britain and further afield.

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