Joseph Wright of Derby – England’s Caravaggio


“”Long seen as a quintessentially modern and progressive figure – one of the artistic icons of the English Enlightenment – [Matthew] Craske overturns this traditional view of [Wright of Derby].” So states the publicity for a new study of England’s greatest realist artist, Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797), the painter who has a claim to be called England’s Caravaggio. But Matthew Craske demonstrates “the extent to which Wright, rather than being a spokesman for scientific progress, was actually a melancholic and sceptical outsider, who increasingly retreated into a solitary, rural world of philosophical and poetic reflection, and whose artistic vision was correspondingly dark and meditative.”

“The standard view is that Wright lacks Caravaggio’s terribilità. While the Italian was a firebrand set on shocking society and overturning decorum with his blend of gory sensationalism and uncanny precision, Wright’s art has been seen as the embodiment of rationalism, the English polar opposite to the Italian trailblazer.

“However, Matthew Craske, of Oxford Brookes University, begs to differ. His thesis is that Wright was prey to dark psychological forces that drove him to depict the darkness in his famous scenes of science and industry in nocturnal settings. Wright’s astonishing A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery (1766, Derby Museum) and Experiment with a Bird in the Air Pump (1768, National Gallery) are masterpieces of clarity, composition and human insight. In Experiment, we see the master of ceremonies (part scientist, part magician) about to demonstrate the qualities of a vacuum by activating new apparatus that will kill the bird in the glass bulb….”

Read my full review in The Critic here: https://thecritic.co.uk/englands-caravaggio/