An eighteenth-century English painter
notable for striking effects of lighting
, and depicting the Scientific Revolution
. Although he is the only Wright of his age to be well known today, he is still always known as Wright of Derby, the epithet contemporary reviewers gave him to distinguish him from others.
Born in Derby on 3 September 1734, he studied in London in the 1750s and exhibited there from 1765, but was especially associated with his home town, and died there on 29 August 1797. He was married to Hannah Smith from 1773 till her death in 1790, and three children survived childhood. In 1773-5 he undertook a tour of Italy, where observations of Vesuvius in eruption provided spectacular material for some of his paintings.
A typical indoors picture is lit by nothing but a single candle, casting intensely dramatic highlights on innermost faces and leaving the rest in attentuated light on the edges of darkness. This is so even for mundane subjects, such as the two girls dressing a kitten, in Kenwood House, Hampstead; but is most striking in a large scene like An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768), where a natural philosopher is demonstrating the effect of evacuation of air on lungs: the scientifically most interested crane in and are seen in flaming detail, while children drawing back wondering or scared are cast in a softer, more distant light.
Outdoors, he did the Sublime: Italian scenes such as a dark cave of banditti starkly lit up by the sunset outside; and fireworks at Rome; and geological studies of Vesuvius.
Wright of Derby was part of the Lunar Society, that group of Enlightenment leaders in the arts and sciences, such as Erasmus Darwin, James Watt, Josiah Wedgwood, and Joseph Priestly, who were fascinated by one another's subjects and advanced them together.
Biographical information from: www.mezzo-mondo.com/arts/mm/wright/wright.html
Links to paintings at: www.artcyclopedia.com/artists/wright_of_derby_joseph.html