Joseph Wright (3 September 1734 - 29 August 1797), styled Wright of Derby, was an English landscape and portrait painter. He has been acclaimed as "the first professional painter to express the spirit of the Industrial Revolution."
Wright is notable for his use of Chiaroscuro effect, which emphasises the contrast of light and dark, and for his paintings of candle-lit subjects. His paintings of the birth of science out of alchemy, often based on the meetings of the Lunar Society, a group of very influential scientists and industrialists living in the English Midlands, are a significant record of the struggle of science against religious values in the period known as the Age of Enlightenment.
Many of Wright's paintings are owned by the Derby city council, and are on display at the Derby Museum and Art Gallery, from where they are occasionally loaned to other galleries.
Joseph Wright was born in Irongate, Derby, the son of John Wright (1697-1767) an attorney, who was afterwards town-clerk and his wife, Hannah Brookes (1700-1764), he was the third of their five children. Wright was educated at Derby grammar school and taught himself to draw by copying prints. Deciding to become a painter, Wright went to London in 1751 and for two years studied under a highly reputed portraitist, Thomas Hudson, the master of Joshua Reynolds. After painting portraits for a while at Derby, Wright again worked as an assistant to Hudson for fifteen months. In 1753 he returned to and settled in Derby and varied his work in portraiture by the production of the subjects with strong chiaroscuro under artificial light, with which his name is chiefly associated and by landscape painting. In 1756 Wright re-entered Hudson's studio for 15 months, forming a lasting friendship with his fellow pupil John Hamilton Mortimer. Wright also spent a productive period in Liverpool, from 1768 to 1771, painting portraits. These included pictures of a number of prominent citizens and their families.
Wright married Ann (also known as Hannah) Swift, the daughter of a leadminer, on 28 July 1773, and at the end of that year visited Italy, where he remained till 1775. Wright and his wife had six children, three of whom died in infancy. While at Naples Wright witnessed an eruption of Mount Vesuvius, which formed the subject of many of his subsequent paintings. On his return from Italy he established himself at Bath as a portrait-painter, but meeting with little encouragement he returned to Derby, where he spent the rest of his life. He became increasingly asthmatic and nervous about the house, and for these complaints he was treated by his friend Dr. Erasmus Darwin. Ann Wright died on 17 August 1790. On 29 August 1797 Wright died at his new home at No. 28 Queen Street, Derby, where he had spent his final months with his two daughters.
Wright was a frequent contributor to the exhibitions of the Society of Artists, and to those of the Royal Academy, of which he was elected an associate in 1781 and a full member in 1784. He, however, declined the latter honour on account of a slight which he believed that he had received, and severed his official connection with the Academy, though he continued to contribute to the exhibitions from 1783 until 1794.
From 1765 Wright exhibited in London, annually at the Society of Artists, 1765-76, then less regularly from 1778 to 1794 at the Royal Academy. Wright also exhibited in 1778 and 1783 at the Free Society of Artists, and in 1784 and 1787 at the Society for Promoting the Arts in Liverpool. The label Wright of Derby was first bestowed on him by the Gazetteer's exhibition reviewer of 1768. In an age when it would have been improper to use artists' Christian names, it was necessary to differentiate between the work of two âMr WrightsââJoseph Wright, who began exhibiting in 1765, and Richard Wright, of Liverpool, an exhibitor since 1762. Bestowed for convenience, the label Wright of Derby has stuck to this day.
Wright is seen at his best in his candlelit subjects of which the Three Gentlemen observing the 'Gladiator' (1765), his A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery, in the Derby Museum and Art Gallery, and An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768), in the National Gallery are excellent examples. His Old Man and Death (1774) is also a striking and individual production.
Joseph Wright of Derby also painted Dovedale by Moonlight, capturing the rural landscape at night with a full moon. It hangs in The Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College. Its companion piece, Dovedale by Sunlight (circa 1784-1785) captures the colors of day. In another Moonlight Landscape, in the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota Florida, equally dramatic, the moon is obscured by an arched bridge over water, but illuminates the scene, making the water sparkle in contrast to the dusky landscape. Another memorable image from his tour of the Lake District is Rydal Waterfall of 1795.
Cave at evening (illustration, right) is painted with the same dramatic chiaroscuro for which Joseph Wright is noted. The painting was executed during 1774, while he was staying in Italy. Notice the similarities to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston's holding, Grotto by the Seaside in the Kingdom of Grotto by the Seaside in the Kingdom of Naples with Banditti, Sunset (1778).