Joseph Wright of Derby was an artist active in England during the last half of the 18th century. He is said to be the first painter to represent the spirit of the Industrial Revolution. He was noted for his keen use of the chiaroscuro technique, with bold light and dark contrasts in a candle-lit scenery. 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. He was born in a distinguished family of lawyers, and his father was a respected attorney and town clerk.
Upon his decision to become a painter, Wright went to London in 1751 and studied under Joshua Reynolds’ master Thomas Hudson, for two years. Wright went back to Derby, painting portraits, before working again as an assistant to Hudson for fifteen months.
Wright went back and settled in Derby in 1753. His portraits now would carry the characteristics that his name is often associated with, producing his subjects in dramatic artificial light and intense light and shadow contrast, called chiaroscuro (bright and dark). He also produced several landscape paintings.
Wright married Ann Swift in 1773. They had six children, whom three 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 came to see a significant eruption of Mount Vesuvius. However, he might have witnessed less impressive, smaller eruptions that may 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 would spend the rest of his life.
Derby consistently contributed to exhibitions of both the Society of Artists and the Royal Academy. The artist became an Academy associate in 1781, and three years later, he was elected a full member of the Royal Academy. The latter honor, however, was declined by Derby due to an alleged insult he received; he even went to cease 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.