Monday, February 2, 2015

Joseph Wright of Derby

An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump
c. 1768
oil on canvas
183 x 244 cm
National Gallery, London, United kingdom

Joseph Wright (1734-1797), English landscape and portrait painter, was commonly called Wright of Derby, because he resided in Derby, England. He was the first artist to capture the awe and wonder inspired by inventions and technology of the Industrial Revolution. He was an artist whose style and technique challenged the somewhat rigidly formulated painting genres. He incorporated a number of art genres into his works, and cast a glow into future artistic styles. His residence in Derby, although provincial, turned out to be a lucky one, because it was here that the Industrial Revolution was at most visual, through blacksmith shops, glass and pottery cones, factories, new machines and engines.

He painted with oils on canvas, using chiaroscuro, or using contrasts of light and dark, which was influenced by the artist Caravaggio. Wright’s paintings are realistic, melodramatic, and romantic. His detailed depictions of facial features, display awe, wonderment, delight, disgust, and anticipation. Success as a portrait painter made money for him, but it was his scientific and industrial paintings, full of dramatic contrasts of light and darkness, which distinguished him from other contemporary artists and assured his unique position in British Art.

Wright had a keen interest in science and technology, and many of his friends were philosophers and scientists. Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles Darwin, was his friend and physician. He also spent time with John Whitehurst, a clock and instrument maker and, Peter Burdett, a surveyor and mathematician. Two of his most prestigious patrons were Josiah Wedgewood, manufacturer of pottery, and Richard Arkwright, creator of the cotton industry factory system. Erasmus Darwin was a member of the Lunar Society, which brought leaders of industry, science, and philosophy together, and Wright occasionally either joined the group, or heard about meeting discussions from Darwin. His experimentation with light sources and their effects, intrigued him, as well as his viewers. He worked with both natural and artificial light sources, and also the atmosphere created by moonlight. When painting landscape scenes, he might paint the exact same scene again using different lighting.

He was born in Derby, into the well-established middle class family of an attorney and Town Clerk of Derby. He was the third of five children. He enjoyed copying prints, and eventually taught himself to draw from imitation. He was educated at Derby Free Grammar School, and in 1751, studied with a portraitist in London, becoming his assistant. In 1753, he returned to Derby and painted portraits, with his developed technique of chiaroscuro, or prominent contrasts. Only four years after his first exhibition in 1765 he was already widely known by the label, Wright of Derby, which was initially given him by the reviewers of the Society of Artists in order to avoid mixing him up with another Richard Wright. Many of his landscape paintings remained unsold during his lifetime and  his Industrial Revolution themed paintings were ahead of their time. His genius in painting would not be truly recognized until after his death.

He and his wife had six children, and tragically, three of whom died in infancy. He was asthmatic, and as time progressed, his condition worsened. His wife died in 1790, and although his health was failing, he continued to paint until the year before he died, in 1797.