'of Derby'

Wright, Joseph, styled 'Wright of Derby' (1734-1797) was an English painter who was a pioneer in the artistic treatment of industrial subjects. He was also the best European painter of artificial light of his day.

Wright's 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'. His depictions of scenes lit by moonlight or candlelight, partly inspired by the Dutch followers of Caravaggio, combine the realism of the new machinery with the romanticism involved in its application to industry and science.

  Joseph Wright was born in Irongate, Derby, the son of an attorney, who was afterwards town-clerk; he was the third of their five children. Wright was educated at Derby grammar school and taught himself to draw by copying prints.


Deciding to become a painter, Wright went to London in 1751 and for two years studied under a highly reputable portraitist, Thomas Hudson, the master of Joshua Reynolds. In 1753 he returned to and settled in Derby and varied his work in portraiture by the production of the subjects with strong chiaroscuro under artificial light, with which his name is chiefly associated, and by landscape painting. In 1756, Wright re-entered Hudson's studio for 15 months, forming a lasting friendship with his fellow pupil John Hamilton Mortimer.


 Wright also spent a productive period in Liverpool, from 1768 to 1771, painting portraits. These included pictures of a number of prominent citizens and their families.


Wright married Ann (also known as Hannah) Swift, the daughter of a lead miner, on 28 July 1773, and at the end of that year visited Italy, where he remained till 1775. Wright and his wife had six children, three of whom died in infancy. While at Naples Wright witnessed an eruption of Mount Vesuvius, which formed the subject of many of his subsequent paintings. 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. He became increasingly asthmatic and nervous about the house, and for these complaints he was treated by his friend Dr. Erasmus Darwin. Ann Wright died on 17 August 1790. On 29 August 1797 Wright died at his new home at No. 28 Queen Street, Derby, where he had spent his final months with his two daughters.


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. Wright also exhibited in 1778 and 1783 at the Free Society of Artists, and in 1784 and 1787 at the Society for Promoting the Arts in Liverpool. The label 'Wright of Derby' was first bestowed on him by the Gazetteer's exhibition reviewer of 1768. In an age when it would have been improper to use artists' Christian names, it was necessary to differentiate between the work of two 'Mr Wrights': Joseph Wright, who began exhibiting in 1765, and Richard Wright, of Liverpool, an exhibitor since 1762. Bestowed for convenience, the label 'Wright of Derby' has stuck to this day.


Many of Wright's paintings and drawings are owned by Derby City Council, and are on display at the Derby Museum and Art Gallery, from where they are occasionally loaned to other galleries.


"Experiment on a Bird in the Air pump" (1768) Oil on canvas, 183 244 cm - 72 x 96.1 in. Tate Britain, London, UK.

"The Alchemist, in Search of the Philosopher's Stone, Discovers Phosphorus, and prays for the successful Conclusion of his operation, as was the custom of the Ancient Chymical Astrologers" (1771) Oil on canvas, 1.270 1.061 cm - 500 417.7 in. Derby Museum and Art Gallery, Derby, U.K.

"A Philosopher Giving that Lecture on the Orrery, in which a Lamp is put in place of the Sun" (circa 1766) Oil on canvas.

"Firework Display at the Castel Sant' Angelo in Rome" (1779) Oil on canvas. Hermitage, St Petersburg, Russia.

"The Widow of an Indian Chief Watching the Arms of Her Deceased Husband" (1785) Oil on canvas, 101.6 127 cm - 40 50 in. Derby Museum and Art Gallery, Derby, U.K.

"The Corinthian Maid" (circa 1784) Oil on canvas, 106.3 130.8 cm - 41.9 51.5 in. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., USA.

"Peter Perez Burdett and his First Wife Hannah" (1765) Oil on canvas, 145 205 cm - 57.1 80.7 in. National Gallery, Prague, Czech Republic.

"Inside the Arcade of the Colosseum" (circa 1774) Pen and brown ink and wash on paper, 37.8 x 49 cm - 14.9 x 19.3 in. Private collection.

Text source: 'Webmuseum' ( & 'Wikipedia' (

Related Artists:

Related Terms: Realism, Chiaroscuro, Genre Painting.

Wright's birthplace at 28 Irongate, Derby, is commemorated with a representation of an orrery (mechanical device that illustrates the relative positions and motions of the planets and moons in the Solar System in a heliocentric model).

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