Born in the provinces, Wright’s work has a surprisingly Continental éclat which sets him apart from the bread and cheese of more mainstream British artists. He associated with men of science and his subjects often reflect interest in the burgeoning Industrial Revolution.
Like all British artists, Wright needed to keep up his income through portraiture and landscape more than subject pictures. The portraits mostly of the upper-middle and professional class and country gentry, are more direct, brightly lit and less flattering than those demanded the more aristocratic clientele in London. For example, his Anna Ashton (University of Liverpool, Liverpool) painted in the 1760s shows a socially prominent Liverpudlian in pastoral guise, probably influenced by seventeenth-century Dutch Arcadian portraiture. The sitter is brightly illuminated and the fact that without being ugly she is no beauty is not disguised. This was doubtless perfectly acceptable to no-nonsense northern taste. His later portrait of the great pioneer of the Lancashire cotton industry Richard Arkwright (Private Collection), with his prominent pot belly is equally unvarnished in interpretation. Wright’s portrait of his son with wife and child reveals the elegant gentrification of second-generation wealth.
Books on Joseph Wright of Derby
Judy Egerton, Wright of Derby, exh. cat., London, 1990.
Benedict Nicolson, Joseph Wright of Derby: Painter of Light, London, 1968.
William Bemrose, The Life and Works of Joseph Wright, A.R.A., Commonly Called “Wright of Derby”, London, 1885.