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Derby 1734­–1797

Joseph Wright of Derby was one of the most original of British eighteenth-century artists. Born in the provinces, his work has a surprisingly Continental éclat which sets him apart from the bread and cheese of more mainstream British artists. He associated with men of science and his subjects often reflect interest in the burgeoning Industrial Revolution.

Like all British artists, Wright needed to keep up his income through portraiture and landscape more than subject pictures. The portraits mostly of the upper-middle and professional class and country gentry, are more direct, brightly lit and less flattering than those demanded the more aristocratic clientele in London. For example, his Ann Ashton (University of Liverpool, Liverpool) painted in the 1760s shows a socially prominent Liverpudlian in pastoral guise, probably influenced by seventeenth-century Dutch Arcadian portraiture. The sitter is brightly illuminated and the fact that without being ugly she is no beauty is not disguised. This was doubtless perfectly acceptable to no-nonsense northern taste. His later portrait of the great pioneer of the Lancashire cotton industry Richard Arkwright (Private Collection), with his prominent pot belly is equally unvarnished in interpretation. Wright's portrait of his son with wife and child reveals the elegant gentrification of second-generation wealth.

Wright was well acquainted with philosophically scientifically minded savants and industrialists in the Midlands like Erasmus Darwin and Josiah Wedgwood and his fame rests chiefly with his scientific subjects, notably the Orrery (Derby Museum, Derby) and the Experiment with a wind pump (Tate Gallery, London).With an audience of both adults and children, the proceedings are as much educational as experimental. The strong chiaroscuro promotes a feeling of mystery and excitement, a Caravaggesque device borrowed from seventeenth-century Dutch candlelight scenes by Honthorst (1592–1656) and Schalken (1643–1706). Some of Wright’s industrial pictures are current like the View of Arkwrights Cotton Mills by Night but his forges depict very traditional technology and are probably as much an excuse for picturesque light effects as inspired by a preoccupation with machinery. Other subject paintings by Wright are more literary. One of the best, taken from Aesop’s fables, is the Old Man and Death (Wadsworth Athenaeum, Hartford) where a skeleton summons the old man into a scary bright new world which seems too good to be true!

In 1773 Wright set out for Italy, visiting Rome and Naples, studying antiquities and absorbing the spectacular scenery. On his return, he responded with views of Vesuvius erupting, the Roman campagna, and grottos by the sea, inspired not only by his meridional travels but a by the luminous marines of the French artist C.J.Vernet (1714–89). He also painted Derbyshire landscapes in an Italianate style in addition to more literary subjects.


Top Auction Results for Joseph Wright of Derby

An Academy by Lamplight
Sold for £7,263,700 ($9,719,925)
London, Sotheby’s, 6 December 2017, Old Masters Evening Sale, lot 11

Portrait of Robert Shore Milnes, with his horse and groom beyond
Sold for $7,208,000 
New York, Sotheby’s, 25 January 2007, Important Old Master Paintings, lot 69

Virgil’s tomb by moonlight
Sold for £1,497,250 ($2,348,627)
London, Sotheby’s, 7 December 2011, Old Master and British Paintings Evening Sale, lot 37 


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