Joseph Wright (aka Wright of Derby) (1734—1797) was an English painter, artist of lighting effects, pioneer of the industrial theme in the visual arts.
Born in Derby on 3 September 1734, Joseph Wright studied portrait painting under T. Hudson in London (1751—1753 and 1756—1757). He worked in Derby, in 1775—1777 — in Bath; in 1773—1775 he visited Italy.
Wright recreated the atmosphere of work and research with subtle lighting effects; his paintings usually featured night scenes, where the light of the moon or candles symbolized the “light of reason”. Among his typical works are The Orrery (c. 1763—1765, Art Gallery, Derby), An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768, Tate Britain Gallery, London), An Iron Forge (1773, Hermitage, St. Petersburg).
He also created pre-romanticist landscapes (Firework Display at the Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome, ibid; Vesuvius in Eruption, Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow; both paintings — c. 1775).
Joseph Wright died in Derby on 29 August 1797.
In 1751—1753 and in 1756—1757, the artist studied at the studio of Thomas Hudson. Wright performed his early portraits (up to 1760) in the manner of his teacher (Portrait of Miss Catton, St. Louis, Missouri, City art gallery; Portrait of Thomas Bennett, Derby, museum). In 1760—1773, the period of his creative search, the artist lived in Derby; he was interested in unusual lighting effects to model space that went back to the art of the Utrecht caravaggisti. In Derby, he met the ceramist Josiah Wedgwood and the chemist Joseph Priestley, who contributed to the industrial revolution. He saw their experiments. The Orrery (1766, Derby, Museum; option — New Haven, Yale Centre for British Art) and An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768, London, Tate Gallery) paintings reflect the interest of the Central England inhabitants in scientific research. Diderot called this new genre of painting, of which Wright’s works are a brilliant illustration, “the serious genre”. The artist also painted portraits (Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Coltman, c. 1770—1772, London, National Gal.) and compositions on historical subjects. In the Miravan Breaking Open the Tomb of His Ancestors painting, Gothic elements are combined with neoclassical ones, and the composition is close to the atmosphere of A. Radcliffe’s novels in its strange nature. During his Italian trip (1773), Wright painted various views that impressed him (Vesuvius from Portici, 1774, Derby, museum; 1778, Moscow, Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts; Firework Display at the Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome, 1774, Derby, Museum; 1774—1775, Birmingham, City Museum; 1775—1778, Liverpool, Walker Gal.; 1778—1779, St. Petersburg, State Hermitage); those themes inspired the artist even upon his return to England (1775). He depicted the effects of moonlight, somewhat reminiscent of the works by Berne, but interprets them more from the point of a scientist observing a physical phenomenon than a romantic. In 1775, Wright left for Bath, where he tried in vain to attract the clientele of Thomas Gainsborough and returned in Derby in 1777. Since that time some of his best portraits were painted (Sir Brooke Boothby, 1781, London, Tate Gal.; Portrait of Rev D’Ewes Coke, His Wife Hannah and Daniel Parker Coke, 1780—1782, Derby, Museum; Portrait of Rev. Thomas Gisborne and his Wife Mary, 1786, New Haven, Yale Centre for British Art). Since 1778, Wright’s works were exhibited in Royal Academy, of which he became a member in 1781. In 1784, he painted The Corinthian Maid (ibid.); the choice of this theme, developed in Hayley’s poem, suggests that Wright’s inspiration came from the modern literature. He never left Derby until his death. There, he executed portraits, landscapes of Derbyshire, historical compositions and works inspired by his memories of Italy (View of the Lake of Nemi, Paris, Louvre). He remained a provincial artist, but in the best sense; his deeply original manner, which combined elements of Gothic and neoclassicism, his interest in scientific research and modern literature made him one of the forerunners of romanticist art. Wright’s artistic legacy is mainly presented at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven (Self-Portrait, 1768; An Iron Forge, 1771; Dr. Richard Wright, 1785—1787; Prison Scene, 1787—1790; Italian Landscape, 1790; View of Lake Nemi at Sunset, c. 1790), at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford (The Old Man and Death, c. 1773), in Tate Gallery, London (Thomas Staniforth of Darnall, Co. York, 1769; A Moonlight with a Lighthouse, Coast of Tuscany, 1789) and in the Derby Museum (Portrait of Thomas Borrow, c. 1762—1763; Self-portrait, 1767—1770; Portrait of Sarah Carver and her daughter Sarah, 1769—1770; A Philosopher by Lamplight, c. 1771—1773; The Alchemist Discovering Phosphorus, 1771—1795; Portrait of Samuel Ward, c. 1782—1783; Indian Widow, 1783—1785; View of Tivoli, 1783—1786; Landscape with a rainbow, 1794—1795). The Derby Museum also houses a significant collection of his drawings and watercolours (in particular, sketches from antiques and landscapes). In 1990, retrospective exhibitions of Wright’s works were held in London (Tate Gal.), Paris (Grand Palais) and New York (Metropolitan Museum).