Three paintings by Joseph Wright of Derby
These were typical works by an innovative English artist
Joseph Wright (1734-97) spent much of his life in his birth town of Derby and is thus often referred to as “Joseph Wright of Derby”. He was an original painter who is generally renowned for his paintings that used science and industry for their subjects. He was, however, also an excellent portraitist and painter of landscapes. These three paintings were typical examples of his output
An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump
This is probably the best-known painting by Joseph Wright, and is typical both of his mature painting style and choice of subject matter. It dates from around 1767 or 1768.
The scene is a demonstration of a scientific experiment that is presumably being given in a country house to the wealthy owner and his family. The device in question, which had been invented at least 100 years before the date of the painting, was used to create a vacuum in a glass vessel, and by placing a live creature in the vessel it was possible to show that removing air caused the creature to lose consciousness and possibly die of suffocation.
In Wright’s painting a bird is inside the air pump, lying collapsed at the base, and the experimenter is about to release the valve at the top of the glass vessel and let the air back in. There is tension in this scene – has the experimenter waited too long? Has the bird died?
This is very much a candle-light painting, although the candle is hidden behind a bowl of water. Also typical of Joseph Wright’s work is the presence of a secondary light source, namely the Moon which is visible through a window on the extreme right-hand side thanks to the young servant who has just opened a curtain.
However, the real interest in this painting comes from the reactions of the witnesses to the experiment. The demonstrator’s face is expressionless as he looks straight at the viewer and not at the air pump or the bird inside it. Other observers are clearly fascinated by it, although the young couple on the extreme left seem to be far more interested in each other.
The people whose faces are best illuminated by the candle are the three who attract most attention, particularly the young girl who looks anxiously at the bird. She seems close to tears but cannot tear her eyes away from what could be a tragic outcome. Her older sister, on the other hand, hides her face with her hand and is comforted by her father, who points to where the scientist is about to open the valve and save the life of the bird.
Every face has a different story to tell, and Wright has achieved this within the limits of the illumination provided by a single candle. That is why this painting has been described (by the art historian Sir Ellis Waterhouse) as “one of the wholly original masterpieces of British art”.
The Alchemist in Search of the Philosopher’s Stone
It might be thought strange that Joseph Wright, with his interest in modern science, should feel comfortable in portraying the activity of a man whose quest was entirely spurious, namely trying to discover the secrets of turning base metal into gold and of living forever. However, alchemy was not always held in such low esteem.
During the 17th century, Robert Boyle, who was one of the founders of the Royal Society and is often regarded as being the “Father of Chemistry”, showed considerable interest in alchemy and was known to have carried out experiments that sought to do exactly what traditional alchemists did. In other words, the dividing line between fake and true science was by no means clear-cut.
The painting, which dates from 1771, certainly has mystery and magic in it, such as the attitude of the alchemist and the expression of wonder on his face. However, there are also elements of more established science to be seen, such as the scientific instruments and the documents that the alchemist has been consulting or possibly writing.
Indeed, there is strong evidence that this painting demonstrates the crossing of the line from alchemy to chemistry in that it depicts the discovery of phosphorus by a German alchemist named Hennig Brand, in 1669.
The painting is typical of Wright for its limited number of light sources, the glow from which illuminate the faces of the people depicted. The Moon also makes an appearance through the window of what appears to be a church-like building.
The Earthstopper on the Banks of the Derwent
This is an early landscape by Joseph Wright, painted in 1773. This was before he travelled to Italy and became seriously interested in painting landscapes.
However, despite this being an outdoor scene, it is also a “candle-light” one, with a lantern on the ground and the Moon illuminating high clouds at the top of the canvas.
The scene depicts a man who had the task of filling in foxholes at night prior to a foxhunt taking place the following day, with the aim being to prevent any fox from making an easy escape.
Although it is a landscape, with trees, clouds and a fast-running river, the focus is very much on the man doing the digging and his dog, which is sniffing the ground beside him. This realistic and dynamic work shows Wright at his experimental best.