Joseph Wright of Derby / British, 1734-1797. SN 906, Oil on Canvas, c.
From: The Pages
Wright came from a solid, middle-class family of doctors & lawyers, but he knew from
the start that he wanted to be an artist, & trained diligently.
While Wright's fame rests primarily on his pictures of scientific experiments, such as
"The Orrery" and "An Experiment with a Bird in an Air Pump," he was
also a skilled portraitist and a leading painter of mythologic subjects.
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; Wright was the first
English painter to base his career outside of London. He is said to have suffered from
The last twenty years of his life were devoted to landscapes, and his year's stay in Italy
(1774-75) where he saw Vesuvius in action, strongly influenced his interest in combining
light sources with landscape painting.
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 prominent men, including Erasmus Darwin and Josiah
Wedgwood. By the 1760's he had begun 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 living painter of candle-lights. His increasing
later-life output of landscapes showed him seeking for truthful observation of natural
phenomenon, such as rock formations and the effects of light and atmosphere. His late
landscapes show a sensitivity to varying effects of light and weather.
The scene is radiantly moon-lit, altho' the moon itself is hidden behind the span of a
bridge over a broad waterway. Visible against the moonlight are the tiny figures of a man
and his donkey plodding along the bridge, while in the lower left, barely seen, 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 far shoreline.
Like many of Wright's landscapes, Moonlight Landscape has a haunting, somewhat eerie
quality about it. Wright had a passion for mood-creating light effects. The positioning of
the dark bulk of trees and mountain against the bright moon-lit sky creates a strikingly
well-balanced landscape. The combination of natural and artificial light in this painting
(i.e., moon and street-lamp) occurs in most of Wright's other nocturnal landscapes.
Although supposedly painted from memory, this is no idealized scene. It's a common-sense
depiction of detail. Wright becomes the link between the Age of Reason and the Age of
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.