(b. 1734, Derby, d. 1797, Derby)
English painter, generally known as Wright of Derby, 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 was trained as a portrait painter by Thomas Hudson for whom he worked as a drapery painter from 1751-53 and again in 1756-57. In between these years he stayed with his family in Derby, where he is recorded as painting his parents, his two sisters and his brother (all now lost) as well as the portraits of many of his friends. Wright made attempts to establish his practice as an artist in Liverpool, and also in Bath. He regularly exhibited his paintings.
Wright's home was Derby, one of the great centres of the birth of the Industrial Revolution, and his depictions of scenes lit by moonlight or candlelight combine the realism of the new machinery with the romanticism involved in its application to industry and science. His pictures of technological subjects, partly inspired by the Dutch followers of Caravaggio, date from 1763 to 1773; the most famous are The Air Pump (1768) and The Orrery (c. 1763-65). Wright was also noted for his portraits of English Midlands industrialists and intellectuals.
Like many artists of his time, he travelled to Italy as a Grand Tourist in 1773-1774. He drew and painted ancient ruins, copied classical statues and saw the spectacular fireworks accompanying the Carnival in Rome. In Naples he witnessed an eruption of Mount Vesuvius, which provided him with the inspiration for several dozen paintings depicting the dramatic effects of fire and darkness. He explored the picturesque caverns and grottoes around the shores of the bay of Naples. Impressions of Italian nature are reflected in many of his subsequent works, though he never became an Italianate landscape painter.
Success as a portrait painter made money for Wright, but it was his scientific and industrial paintings, full of dramatic contrasts of light and darkness, which distinguished him from other contemporary artists and assured his unique position in British Art. Wright's residence in Derby, although provincial, turned out to be fortuitous, because it was here that the Industrial Revolution was at most visual, through blacksmith shops, glass and pottery kilns, the new purpose-built factories, new machines and engines. Here he met, on equal status, the pragmatic and innovating men who were inventing the New World of manufacturing, rational (occasionally radical) politics and practical scientific methodology.
The sheer breadth of Wright's achievements as a painter are illustrated not only by his work as a portraitist (where he is the equal of any artist of his age), his and innovatory dramatic candle-lit and scientific pictures, but also in his many and varied landscapes, which alone would guarantee him a place at the forefront of British Art of the 18th century. They stretch from the age of Richard Wilson to foreshadow the continental Romanticism of Caspar David Friedrich, and illustrate a creative mind open to the new trends in European art. He is truly the English artist of the Age of Enlightenment.