Joseph Wright of Derby

We’re on a bit of a landscape tear, so let’s keep it going and jump back to the Brits, starting with Joseph Wright of Derby, a Neoclassical painter who was an important forerunner to the Romantic movement.

Wright is probably best known for his dramatic candlelit scenes celebrating the Enlightenment, including this one:

An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768) by Joseph Wright of Derby. The National Gallery (London, UK). 

An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768) by Joseph Wright of Derby. The National Gallery (London, UK). 

Or this one:

A Philosopher giving a Lecture on the Orrery in which a lamp is put in place of the Sun (c. 1766) by Joseph Wright of Derby. Derby Museum and Art Gallery (Derby, UK). 

A Philosopher giving a Lecture on the Orrery in which a lamp is put in place of the Sun (c. 1766) by Joseph Wright of Derby. Derby Museum and Art Gallery (Derby, UK). 

His cinematic use of tenebrism, or a very pronounced chiaroscuro, marked by jarring contrasts of light and dark, with darkness almost consuming the frame, recalls the paintings of French Baroque painter Georges de La Tour.

The Penitent Magdalene (c. 1640) by Georges de la Tour. The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, NY). 

The Penitent Magdalene (c. 1640) by Georges de la Tour. The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, NY). 

Unlike Georges de la Tour’s paintings, in which a candle represents the religious – a votive offering to God – Wright’s light source represents the scientific. Man on the cusp of discovery, steaming headlong into the Industrial Revolution. Prayer has been replaced by study.

There’s an undeniable dynamism to Wright’s genre scenes. Compare them to this excellent but much “stiffer” double portrait by neoclassical giant Jacques Louis-David at the height of his powers:

Portrait of Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier and his Wife (1788) by Jacques Louis-David. The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, NY).

Portrait of Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier and his Wife (1788) by Jacques Louis-David. The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, NY).

It’s difficult to criticize David for a painting that was no doubt intended more as a society portrait than a fun chemistry genre scene, but little separates this rendition of a couple from the standard van Dyck format other than a few upturned flasks. David was a Neoclassical painter through and through, a rigid disciple of order, harmony and rationality. He’s similar to two painters from the Baroque we’ve discussed, the cityscapists Canaletto and Jan van der Heyden, inasmuch as he’s impossibly precise. David’s paintings are symmetrical, austere and cerebral.

If Wright is best known for his paintings of Enlightenment scientists – and I am not exaggerating when I say that An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump especially belongs on any list of the best paintings in the history of Western art – they may not be his most important.

Why? Well, his Enlightenment scenes owed much to Caravaggio in lighting and composition. What was radical and new was the way he applied tenebrism to landscapes. Unlike his genre scenes that had one foot in the Neoclassical and one foot in the Baroque of the Caravaggisti (the many followers of Caravaggio, from Utrecht to Venice), Wright’s landscapes prefigured an entire movement (Romanticism).

Romanticism was a reaction against the Enlightenment, a rejection of order, balance, and rationality; a shift into the personal, the imaginary, the elusive, the natural, the exotic, the dangerous.

Wright seems to have shifted from the Neoclassical to the Romantic with relative ease, painting many of his first landscapes based on his travels to Italy, including this beautiful moonlit scene of the Bay of Naples:

Vesuvius from Posillipo by Moonlight (1774) by Joseph Wright of Derby. Private collection.

Vesuvius from Posillipo by Moonlight (1774) by Joseph Wright of Derby. Private collection.

Now compare it to the same scene by Russian landscape painter Ivan Aivazovsky:

The Bay of Naples on a Moonlit Night (1842) by Ivan Aivazovsky. 

The Bay of Naples on a Moonlit Night (1842) by Ivan Aivazovsky. 

Two strikingly similar compositions, 70 years apart. Wright painted many scenes of Naples and Mount Vesuvius in particular (you’ll notice Vesuvius in both the Wright and the Aivazovsky painting).

Even though landscape painting was, at this time, a much-less popular and prestigious form of painting, Wright seems to have been drawn to it again and again, replacing the oil lamp with the sun and the moon. His travels to Italy must have inspired him to stop painting genre scenes of Man on the cusp of conquering Mother Nature in the midst of the Enlightenment. Vesuvius from Posillipo by Moonlight has almost the opposite viewpoint: Man dwarfed by an active Vesuvius, threatening to engulf the seaside resort town any second.

Wright also loved to paint scenes of Italian caverns:

A Cavern, Evening (1774) by Joseph Wright of Derby. Smith College Museum of Art (Northampton, MA).

A Cavern, Evening (1774) by Joseph Wright of Derby. Smith College Museum of Art (Northampton, MA).

Ships skirt around a dark and foreboding cavern. Instead of shining a bright light into the unknown, as with the oil lamps in his genre scenes, these men are keeping their distance from the unexplored. The uncharted will stay that way. In this way, Wright is himself stepping away from the perfectly ordered world of the Neoclassical into the exotic lure of the Romantic.

Upon his return from Italy, Wright settled in Bath for almost two years, returning to portraiture without much success. He relocated to Derby, where he painted this Neoclassical potboiler:

Richard Cheslyn (1777) by Joseph Wright of Derby. The Tate Britain (London, UK). 

Richard Cheslyn (1777) by Joseph Wright of Derby. The Tate Britain (London, UK). 

It’s a perfectly good Neoclassical painting of one Richard Cheslyn, esquire, pretending to be reading a book and hoping he’ll impress his friends. And for all its technical mastery, it is very much been-there-done-that. Now compare it to a similar composition by Wright:

John Whitehurst (c. 1782-1783) by Joseph Wright of Derby. Private Collection.

John Whitehurst (c. 1782-1783) by Joseph Wright of Derby. Private Collection.

This painting is a perfect blend of Wright’s oeuvre up to this point in his career. It’s of John Whitehurst, a well-regarded Derbyshire geologist and hydraulic/pneumatic inventor. This isn’t just a society portrait. This dude is hard at work, thinking about how to tame Mother Nature, when a puffing, doom-and-gloom volcano sits right outside his window! As far as I know, there are no active volcanoes in Derbyshire. Or anywhere in the UK. Wright is injecting a Romantic capriccio painting into a Neoclassical portrait of an Enlightenment thinker. And the pose really sells the painting. Unlike Cheslyn, Whitehurst is not “posing” for his painter. He is “alone,” burning the midnight oil, lost in thought.

As you can probably tell, Joseph Wright of Derby was a seriously versatile artist. If you want to pick him out, look for his early genre paintings of industrial workers, scientists and pseudo-scientists gathered around a single, dramatic artificial light source in a crowded room otherwise cloaked in darkness:

An Iron Forge (1772) by Joseph Wright of Derby. The Tate Britain (London, UK). 

An Iron Forge (1772) by Joseph Wright of Derby. The Tate Britain (London, UK). 

Look for his mid-career landscapes of Italian bays, volcanoes and caverns lit by the moon or by fiery volcanic eruption, as well as English countrysides lit by the moon:

Dovedale by Moonlight (1784) by Joseph Wright of Derby. Allen Memorial Art Museum (Oberlin, OH).

Dovedale by Moonlight (1784) by Joseph Wright of Derby. Allen Memorial Art Museum (Oberlin, OH).

Finally, look for late-career Neoclassical portraits of Bath and Derbyshire nobles in a fairly dark room or outdoor setting, often combined with a distinctly Romantic touch, or a straight-up Romantic portrait:

The Widow of an Indian Chief Watching the Arms of Her Deceased Husband (1785) by Joseph Wright of Derby. Derby Museum and Art Gallery (Derby, UK).

The Widow of an Indian Chief Watching the Arms of Her Deceased Husband (1785) by Joseph Wright of Derby. Derby Museum and Art Gallery (Derby, UK).

Maybe next time you’re at your local museum, you’ll not only be able to pick out a Wright painting; you’ll be able to pick out when he painted it!