Joseph Wright of Derby

Dates1734 - 1797

The effects of light fascinated Joseph Wright of Derby. An attorney's son, he trained as a portrait painter in London, but he returned to Derby, the first major English painter to build his career outside the capital. With scientific experiments a source of general fascination, his meticulously painted figure groups in dark interiors illuminated by candles or lamps carried his reputation to London. His dramatic contrasts of light and shade showed the influence of artists like Gerrit van Honthorst and Rembrandt van Rijn, but Wright invented the scientific Enlightenment subject: scenes of experiments, new machinery, and the leaders of the Industrial Revolution. In 1773, Wright went to Italy. Vesuvius's volcanic eruption and Rome's annual fireworks display impressed him, and he began to understand how his interest in light sources could combine with landscape painting. Returning to Derby in 1777, he found a steady stream of portrait clients, whom he satisfied with more penetrating characterizations, more complex iconography, more subdued coloring, and, frequently, literary themes. With the leisure to choose subjects, he increasingly painted landscapes, seeking truthful observation of nature, including rock formations or effects of light and atmosphere, without sacrificing aesthetic values like poetry, beauty, drama, and composition.