The painter of English Enlightenment and Industrialisation - Joseph Wright of Derby

3 September 1734, "the first professional painter to express the spirit of the Industrial Revolution" Joseph Wright was born in Derby.

“So in some Engine, that denies a Vent,
If unrespiring is some Creature pent,
It sickens, droops, and pants, and gasps for Breath,
Sad o'er the Sight swim shad'wy Mists of Death;
If then kind Air pours powerful in again.
New Heats, new Pulses quicken ev'ry Vein;
From the clear'd, lifted, life-rekindled Eye,
Dispers'd, the dark and dampy Vapours fly.“ (Robert Savage, “The Wanderer”, 1729)

Joseph Wright of Derby (1734 - 1797):“Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump“ (1768)

is always a bit scary. When the Industrial Revolution dawned upon England during the 18th century, many, and not only those who were fated to become the lumpenproletariat of Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow, were plainly terrified. Art offered an escape route for some of the upper crusts of society and artists began to illustrate heirlooms, real and fancied, with images and text, picturesque nature, the Middle Ages and antiquity. Existential angst became a topic, it was the natal hour of the Gothic novel, man averted the gaze from the deteriorating landscapes that made room for the eerie factories, darkening day with hellish smoke and lighting night with a fiery glow, looked at the inside and found it equally hideous. Mad masters of hellfire sprung from imagination as well as demonic scientists playing god and turning the natural order upside down. Meanwhile, the selfsame scientists cemented the 19th century unswerving faith in progress, along with inventors and the rising class of entrepreneurs and industrials who turned scientific discovery into a profit far quicker and more thorough than anywhere else in the world. A somewhat paradoxical counterpoint to the discontent in civilisation and especially the arts. Few artists let themselves in for the magic of change and the wonders of science. Those who did were not the first ones, however. About a hundred years earlier during the Dutch Golden Age, painters had already moved away from the traditional canon of suitable subjects and began to paint progress, ships, the workhorses of Dutch prosperity, scenes of everyday life and the workshops of contemporary scientists, usually alchemists. Depicted in bright-and-dark techniques, these paintings were certainly the ideological forerunners if not the inspiration for one of the prophets of the Industrial Age, Joseph Wright of Derby.

Joseph Wright of Derby: "A Philosopher giving a Lecture on the Orrery in which a lamp is put in place of the Sun" (1766)

Caravaggio was a blasphemer. Using Rome’s male and female prostitutes as models for his saints, choosing the most obscure scenes from the scriptures to express violence and debauchery, highlighting all the wrong elements. And he was a master of highlighting. Chiaroscuro, the strong contrasts between light and dark, wasn’t exactly his invention. Renaissance artists already used the technique at least a century before Caravaggio created “The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew” in 1599 and became the “most famous painter in Rome”. Few mastered the drama of tenebrism, as Caravaggio’s extreme use of chiaroscuro was called, as he did, though. In 1773, when Wright came to Italy and might have seen an original Caravaggio, it certainly was something of a revelation for him. By then, he already was, in the words of his contemporary James Northcote, portrait artist, "the most famous painter now living for candle-lights" and had finished several large canvasses, depicting somewhat curious topics, usually by the light of a single candle. Wright had learned his trade from Thomas Hudson, just like Joshua Reynolds, and it was Hudson who had introduced him to Hogarth and the idea of depicting contemporary curiosities as well as the Dutch Baroque masters, first and foremost the Utrecht Caravaggisti. While working with religious subjects, the fun usually stopped for Terbrugghen, Honthorst and Baburen, though, and they highlighted the proper elements, infant Jesus, the stigmata, eyes raised to heaven, but there was more of Caravaggio in Wright, consciously or not, since he chose to illuminate experiments and scientific achievements in the way the Utrecht Caravaggisti chose faith and there were some scenes of boys fighting for a pig bladder or two girls dressing up their kitten that look quite like a perception of Hogarth with lighting nuances even Caravaggio might have approved of.

Joseph Wright of Derby: "Two Girls Dressing a Kitten by Candlelight" (1770)

a while, Wright was the painter of English Enlightenment and Industrialisation in its humanistic and positivistic aspects. And his native Midlands didn’t lack for suitable patrons. Josiah Wedgewood was one of them and so was Richard Arkwright, “Father of the Industrial Revolution“ and Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles who would shake the very foundations of the world two generations later. All three were “Lunarticks”, members of the Lunar Society of Birmingham, a dinner club dedicated to science, learning and intellectual discourse, and so was Wright, among other worthies who furthered progress and, naturally, they made up quite an audience for the artist and his paintings of science. The humble painter of portraits had become something of a figurehead of an age. Or at least someone who created a visible and aesthetically pleasing image of its spirit. However, his visit to Italy must have done things to him, awakening a romantically beating heart under his scientifically girdled breast. A “Grotto by the Seaside in the Kingdom of Naples with Banditti, Sunset“ appears, along with moonlit Midland landscapes, eruptions of Vesuvius and similar themes that wouldn’t look out of place in the oeuvre of contemporary and later romantically moved artists, those who abhorred the very idea of the Industrial Revolution. But, who knows, maybe Wright was something of a Romantic all along, ensorcelled by the magic of change and steam and speed like a younger, more prominent member from the ranks of British painters of the late 18th and early 19th century whose best known works hang opposite Derby’s “Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump“ in the National Gallery.

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