Joseph Wright of Derby was an artist associated with Romanticism and Neo-Classicism, who was active in England during the second half of the 18th century. He is known as the first painter to represent the spirit of the Industrial Revolution. The artist was noted for his keen use of the chiaroscuro technique, with bold light and dark contrasts in a candle-lit scenery, a reference from the Baroque masters. He is also associated with depicting the Age of Enlightenment and the struggle of scientists against religious dogmas.
Joseph Wright was born in September 1734, in the city of Derby, and in a distinguished family of attorneys. His father was a respected lawyer and town clerk, and he was the youngest of three siblings.
Around the age of 17, the young artist went to London to pursue a career as a painter in 1751. There, he studied under Joshua Reynolds' master Thomas Hudson for two years. Wright went back to Derby, where he painted mostly portraits, before working again as Hudson's assistant for fifteen months.
Thomas Hudson's work was focused on pictures of the nobility and the Royal Family. Reynolds popularized the Grand Manner, a style of grandiosity within historical portraits, which was based on the oeuvre of his master. On the other hand, Wright used his technique to explore the new connection between humankind, knowledge, science, and technology.
Wright went back and settled in Derby in 1753. By this time, his portraits started to carry characteristics that ultimately became associated with his name. The painter produced subjects in dramatic and artificial lighting, with intense contrast called chiaroscuro (bright and dark). He also concluded several landscape paintings.
By 1762, Joseph Wright was already established, working mainly with portraits. A late example of the artist's images is Portrait of Rev. Thomas Gisborne and his Wife Mary, which echoes the oeuvre of the contemporary Thomas Gainsborough.
Joseph Wright of Derby's work is hard to classify. While many historians have placed him merely as the artistic reflection of Industrial Society, recent studies try to expand upon his place in British art. Not only a eulogy to science in the positivist fashion, his most famous paintings, known as "candlelight paintings", embrace a critical approach to knowledge, technology, and its place on human interaction.
The first work that the British painter explored his visual trademark was A Girl Reading a Letter by Candlelight, With a Young Man Peering Over Her Shoulder. Not only does the mastery in the lighting amazes us, but also the gradient reflection and texture of the skin. Within a contained composition, the viewer is presented with a dynamic narrative.
The candle, the only source of light, is filtered through the letter. There is a happy girl reading, while the man looks at the viewer, bewildered. Could she be his lover, and if so, is the letter coming from another man? The artist leaves this question unanswered, inviting the public to participate in its narrative.
After this first experiment, the painter explored the same setting more classically. Three Persons Viewing the Gladiator by Candlelight, done in 1765, features three men observing a sculpture in a dimly lit room. In yet another relatively simple scene, Derby puts an additional character compared to the previous painting, preparing for his more detailed scenes to come.
Experiment With the Air Pump, probably his most famous work, is a stellar example of Derby's perspective on the industrial issues of his time. Painted in 1768 and now present at the National Gallery, the picture depicts a relatively simple experiment in a complex fashion. The artwork deepens his use of chiaroscuro, something that wasn't usual in England. Authors credit the influence of Utrecht Caravaggism, a group of Dutch Baroque painters influenced by Caravaggio.
In Experiment With the Air Pump, it's notable how his portrayal of lighting is more dramatic compared to his previous works. The natural philosopher, or scientist, takes place akin to the young man of the first painting, looking at the viewer's direction and almost occupying the center of the image.
There are eight figures around the table, among them young girls who look terrified by the event, and an older man trying to calm them, possibly their father. In the opposite direction, a young man and a lady are talking. On the right of the picture, a boy is opening the curtains to the window that reveals a full moon, a reference to the Lunar Society, a group of intellectuals.
The English painter continued to explore the effects of light and created, yet again, two more paintings using candlelight as a motif. These last works were less dramatic. The artist probably had other clientele in mind when concluding them since pictures like Experiment With the Air Pump were aimed at burgeoning intellectuals. From 1771 to 1773, lighting continued to be essential in Wright's work. The difference is that the artist became more concerned with another kind of labor: blacksmith forges, as seen in A Blacksmith's Shop.
Wright married Ann Swift in 1773. They had six children, three of whom died in their infancy. In 1773, Wright, along with his pregnant wife, John Downman, and Richard Hurleston, set off to Italy. Despite spending an extensive period in Naples, Wright never experienced a significant eruption of Mount Vesuvius. However, he might have witnessed less impressive and smaller, explosions which would have inspired his future paintings of the volcano.
After his return from Italy, Wright tried to establish himself in the city of Bath. However, out of little encouragement, he went back to Derby in 1777, where he spent the rest of his life. Derby consistently contributed to exhibitions of both the Society of Artists and the Royal Academy. The artist became an associate in 1781, and three years later, he was elected a full member of the Royal Academy.
However, the latter honor was declined by Derby due to an alleged insult he received; he ceased any official connection he had with the institution. Despite this, the artist continued to contribute to the Academy's exhibitions.
Joseph Wright Derby died on August 17, 1790.