Wright of Derby, Joseph

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Wright of Derby, Joseph (1734-1797), English Painter.

Joseph Wright was born into a respected professional family in Derby, a regional commercial and cultural center. At 17, he was sent to London for formal training in painting, beginning with a two-year apprenticeship. In 1757, he returned to Derby to establish a portrait painting practice. Between 1765 and 1773, he exhibited with the Society of Artists of Great Britain, the commercial rival of the Royal Academy which was open to artists of all kinds. From 1773 to 1775, he undertook the Grand Tour of Italy along with his new wife. From then on, Wright extended the range of his work to include landscapes and myths. After the failure of the Society of Artists, Wright exhibited with the Royal Academy, though he quarreled with it often. He died on August 24, 1797.

Though taking pride in himself as a painter, Wright was a man of the broader enlightened culture and socialized with a wide range of men from a variety of fields. His friends included Josiah Wedgewood and Darwin, Erasmus of the Birmingham Lunar Society, and he was probably a Free-Mason. In his work, Wright drew on a wide range of pictorial, scientific, and literary sources. He is best known as a painter of scientific experiments and manufacturing processes, and his work helped to found the genre of industrial painting as a legitimate field. Later in his life, he was renowned for his paintings of striking natural phenomena, most famously Mount Vesuvius. Wright’s work is characterized by his use of vivid contrasts of light and dark for dramatic effect.

Further Reading:

Stephen Daniels, Joseph Wright, 1999.

Benedict Nicolson, Joseph Wright of Derby, Painter of Light, 2 vols., 1968.

Leah Sumner