The biography of Joseph Wright (1734 - 1797)

Joseph Wright (1734 - 1797) was an English landscape and portrait painter. He has been acclaimed as “the first professional painter to express the spirit of the Industrial Revolution”.

On his return from Italy he established himself at Bath as a portrait-painter, but meeting with little encouragement he returned to Derby where he spent the rest of his life. Hannah died in 1790 but Wright continued to paint up until his final year. Wright died on 29th August 1797 at his new home at Derby, where he spent his final months with his two daughters.

Joseph Wright was born on September 3, 1734 in Derby, a small city in central England at the heart of the Industrial Revolution. He was the third son of John Wright attorney and town Clerk and Hannah Brooks.

His early interest and talent in portrait drawing lead him to London in 1751 and for two years Wright studied in the studio of Thomas Hudson. Returning to live in Derby, he varied his work in portraiture by the production of the subjects with strong chiaroscuro under artificial light. His reputation and career as a portrait painter began to flourish and he obtained commissions not only from Derby but increasingly from throughout nearby towns and cities.

Wright is notable for his use of Chiaroscuro effect, which emphasizes the contrast of light and dark, and for his paintings of candle-lit subjects. His paintings of the birth of science out of alchemy, often based on the meetings of the Lunar Society, a group of very influential scientists and industrialists living in the English Midlands, are a significant record of the struggle of science against religious values in the period known as the Enlightenment.

Wright married Hannah Swift in 1773 and at the end of that year visited Italy, where he remained till 1775. While he was at Naples Wright witnessed an eruption of Mount Vesuvius, which formed the subject of many of his subsequent paintings.

Wright was a frequent contributor to the exhibitions of the Society of Artists, and to those of the Royal Academy, of which he was elected an associate in 1781 and a full member in 1784. He, however, declined the latter honour on account of a slight which he believed that he had received and severed his official connection with the Academy, though he continued to contribute to the exhibitions from 1783 until 1794.

He first exhibited in London at the Society of Artists in 1765 at the age of 31, showing two works including “Three Persons Viewing the Gladiator by Candlelight”. This was the first of a series of ‘candlelight’ compositions by which his name became established. The two major works of this period were A Philosopher Giving that Lecture on the Orrery in which a Lamp is put in place of the Sun (1766), and An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768). They represent a complex combination of art, science and philosophy and owe much to the Wright’s circle of friends who included members of an important provincial group of philosophers, scientists and engineers, collectively known as the “Lunar Society”, a title derived from their custom of meeting monthly on the Monday nearest the full moon. They demonstrated experiments and discussed the latest developments in chemistry, medicine, electricity, gases and industrial topics. An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768), shows people gathered round observing an early experiment into the nature of air and its ability to support life. His Old Man and Death (1774) is a striking and individual production.

Many of Wright’s paintings are owned by the Derby city council and are on display at the Derby Museum and Art Gallery, from where they are occasionally loaned to other galleries.