Joseph Wright (3 September 1734 – 29 August 1797), styled Wright of Derby, was an English landscape and portrait painter. He has been acclaimed as “the first professional painter to express the spirit of the Industrial Revolution.” Wright is notable for his use of Chiaroscuro effect, which emphasises 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 Age of Enlightenment. Many of Wright’s paintings and drawings 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.
Wright is seen at his best in his candlelit subjects of which the Three Gentlemen observing the ‘Gladiator’ (1765), his A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery (1766), in the Derby Museum and Art Gallery, and An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768), in the National Gallery are excellent examples. His Old Man and Death (1774) is also a striking and individual production.
Joseph Wright of Derby also painted Dovedale by Moonlight, capturing the rural landscape at night with a full moon. It hangs in The Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College. Its companion piece, Dovedale by Sunlight (circa 1784-1785) captures the colors of day. In another Moonlight Landscape, in the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota Florida, equally dramatic, the moon is obscured by an arched bridge over water, but illuminates the scene, making the water sparkle in contrast to the dusky landscape. Another memorable image from his tour of the Lake District is Rydal Waterfall of 1795. Cave at evening (illustration, right) is painted with the same dramatic chiaroscuro for which Joseph Wright is noted. The painting was executed during 1774, while he was staying in Italy. Notice the similarities to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston’s holding, Grotto by the Seaside in the Kingdom of Naples with Banditti, Sunset (1778).