Joseph Wright was born on September 3 1734 in Derby, into the well-established middle class family of John Wright, attorney and Town Clerk of Derby, and his wife Hannah Brookes. He was the youngest of three brothers including John and Richard Wright.
Several surviving chalk drawings indicate that Wright had started teaching himself the art of drawing as early as the age of sixteen. Approximately a year hence, in 1751, he began his formal training under the supervision of Thomas Hudson in his studio in London. Hudson was a sound art teacher and an imaginative portraitist. He was acquainted with numerous artists and owned an extensive collection of various drawings and prints, which served well as a means for his pupils to study technique. Wright remained with Hudson for two years before moving back to Derby, where he painted several portraits of his family and friends, among these the Portrait of Richard Wright (1755), an early Self-Portrait (1753-4) and a Portrait of Anne Bateman (1755). However, Wright was unsatisfied with the quality of his first paintings and thus returned once more to Hudson in 1756 for another fifteen months.
Wright’s first exhibition took place in London in 1765, at the Society of Artists. He displayed two of his paintings, Three Persons Viewing the Gladiator by Candle Light (1765) and A Conversation Piece (est. 1764). The former was soon to become the first of a series of ‘Candle Light’ paintings by which Wright established his name as an artist. ‘The Gladiator’ drew much attention, as did A Philosopher Giving that Lecture on the Orrery, in which a lamp is put in place of the Sun (1766), which was exhibited the following year, and An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768), exhibited in 1768. Only four years after his first exhibition Wright was already widely known by the label, Wright of Derby, which was initially given him by the reviewers of the Society of Artists in order to avoid mixing him up with the Liverpool artist Richard Wright, who was already exhibiting when Joseph Wright came into the picture.
Wright’s experiments with painting light sources, which included both natural and manmade, was a fairly innovative and original endeavor, as very few artists before him had ventured down this path and managed to capture such scenes as vividly as he. Indeed, Wright seems to have been quite fascinated with the dramatic effects of light and the shadows which it cast. As his four paintings of A Blacksmith’s Shop (1771) and An Iron Forge (1772-3) indicate, he rarely passed up an opportunity to try painting a new light source when he chanced upon it.
Wright spent most of his life in his hometown. From late in 1768 to the summer of 1771 he worked in Liverpool, after which he traveled to Italy, arriving in Rome in early 1774. In September of the following year he returned to Derby for a short while before traveling to Bath, where he tried for roughly two years, and with little success, to establish his name as a fashionable portraitist following in the footstep of Thomas Gainsborough. Even so, portraits continued to be his primary source of income throughout his artistic career, while his landscapes and subject paintings remained largely unsold.
In 1773, at the age of 39, Wright married Hannah Swift. They had a total of six children, with only three surviving infancy, to whom Wright proved to be a devoted and lenient father. …
Hannah Wright died in 1790. Wright continued to paint for 6 or perhaps 7 years afterwards, with his latest finished paintings, among these Rydal Waterfall and Ullswater, dating at 1795-6. In his final years Wright was stricken with asthma and paranoia, and moved to 26/27 Queen Street with his two daughters because of an unfounded fear that his own house would cave in on them. He died on 29 August 1797 under the care of Doctor Erasmus Darwin.
The Masters of Candlelight: An Anthology of Great Masters Including Georges De LA Tour, Godfried Schalcken, Joseph Wright of Derby by Christopher Wright. Art Books Intl Ltd, 1997.
Joseph Wright of Derby in Liverpool by Alex Kidson, Elizabeth Barker, Sarah Parsons, Jane Longmore, Martin Hopkinson. Yale University Press, 2008.
Joseph Wright of Derby;: A selection of paintings from the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon. National Gallery of Art, 1969.
Wright of Derby by Judy Egerton. Metropolitan Museum Of Art, 1990.
c.1753-4. Oil on canvas. 76.2 x 63.5 cm. Derby Art Gallery, Derby, UK.
1755. Oil on canvas. 77 x 65 cm. Private collection. Read Note.
Exhibited 1765. Oil on canvas. 101.6 x 121.9 cm. Private collection.
Exhibited 1766. Oil on canvas. 147.3 x 203.2 cm. Derby Art Gallery, Derby, UK.