Joseph Wright of Derby British 1734-1797
SN 906. Oil on Canvas
by Robert Anderson.
While Wright's fame rests primarily with his pictures of scientific experiments such as
"The Orrey" and "An Experiment with a Bird in an Air Pump", he was
also a skilled portraitist and a leading painter of mythological subjects. The last twenty
years of his life were devoted to landscapes, however, and his stay in Italy (1774-75)
strongly influenced this interest in landscape painting.
Wright was the first English painter to base his career outside of London. He at one point
attempted to replace Gainsborough as a painter to sophisticated society at Bath - but
without success (1775-76). He then returned to Derby where he remained for the remainder
of his life.
Wright's interest in science was that of an educated man. He was a member
of the Lunar Society which centered its activity on all aspects of contemporary science.
It was there that he rubbed shoulders with many prominant men including Erasmus Darwin and
By the 1760's he had began to paint candle-lit scenes of various types,
showing a fascination with unusual lighting effects that was to run throughout his career.
By 1772 he was described as the most famous painter then living for candle-lights. While
in Italy he was most impressed with the great annual fireworks display in Rome and painted
several pictures of both the display and of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius which he had
His increasing later life output of landscapes showed him seeking for
truthful observation of natural pheomenon such as rock formations and the effects of light
and atmosphere; and his late landscapes show a sensitivity to varying effects of light and
The scene is a moon-lit night. The moon is hidden behind a natural appearing bridge over a
stream. On the bridge a man and his donkey plod along while in the lower left a man
shoulders a pole with a basket attached - probably to hold the fish he catches. At the
right end of the bridge a street-lamp lights the way. While the moon itself is hidden, its
rays are reflected on the water and also on the bottom shoreline.
Like many of Wright's landscapes Moonlight Landscape has a hauntingly, somewhat eerie
quality about it. Wright has a passion for eerie light effects and this passion is seen
here creating a landscape of mood. The positioning of the dark somewhat bulky land of
trees and mountain against the bright moon-lit sky creates a strikingly well balanced
The combination of natural and artificial light in this painting (ie.moon
and street-lamp) occurs in most of Wright's other nocturnal landscapes. If painted at a
later date one might imagine that an automobile had been parked in the lower right portion
of the painting with light being reflected from it's hood although it is probably a rock.
The Industrial Revolution had gathered a full head of steam with candle-lit factories
becoming centers of industrial employment. This fitted Wright's interest in artificial and
natural light and shadow. He painted iron forges at night, blacksmith's shops and
industrial workshops. His paintings of "men at work" scenes were popular with
the aristocracy. Lord Melbourne, Lord Palmerston and Catherine the Great of Russia were
among the purchasers of his paintings.