Joseph Wright of Derby: portraitist?



One of my favourite artists to study at uni was Joseph Wright of Derby. While the British art scene was filled with Gainsborough's portraits and Turner's sublime seascapes, JWoD was busy painting his way towards Enlightenment with scenes of a scientific nature.

In his lifetime, his fame was Europe-wide, which was much to do with paintings like An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, and A Philosopher Giving a Lecture on the Orrery. He was able to master the depiction of light in darkness in a way that makes him comparable to Canaletto (personally, I'm on Team Wright, but I understand many would be waving a Canaletto flag).

JWoD, An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump 

JWoD, A Philosopher Giving a Lecture on the Orrery

As a man of the Enlightenment, traditional spirituality wasn't JWoD's thing. In one painting, The Alchemist in Search of the Philosopher's Stone Discovers Phosphorous (below), he undermines Christian iconography by having his scientist fall to his knees in what looks like a religious praise of science (this was back when religion and science were considered opposites).

JWoD, The Alchemist in Search of the Philosopher's Stone Discovers Phosphorous

It seems his talents were best exercised when he had some sort of intellectual connection to his subject, which might be why his portraits are generally regarded as slightly rubbish. But a new exhibition at The Holburne Museum in Bath aims to challenge the idea of portraiture as the artist's inferior genre. He spent an interesting eighteen-month stint in Bath, seeking a lucrative salary as a portraitist, presumably inspired by the success of Gainsborough before him. It wasn't a wildly successful venture (the painting below is one of the better works, but it's a bit... blegh). Evidently, he couldn't muster up the same inspiration for society subjects, and he soon returned to Derby.

JWoD, The Rev. Dr. Thomas Wilson and his adopted Daughter Miss Catherine Sophia Macaulay

I haven't been to the show (comment below if you fancy donating a train ticket to Bath for me!), but it seems like one of the most amusing things to come out of it is his dislike for those who sat for his portraits. I have a sneaking suspicion I would still prefer his epic searches for Enlightenment, but I definitely need to find a way to this exhibition.

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