In the Light of Knowledge

Joseph Wright of Derby, Sunset on the Coast near Naples, 1785

Joseph Wright of Derby, Sunset on the Coast near Naples

Artists have always been fascinated by light. Joseph Wright of Derby became famous for his ability to recreate the effects of light, illuminating faces and figures and scenes in a way that brought drama and interest to the subjects that he painted.

He is best known for his paintings of scenes such as The Orrery (“A Philosopher Giving that Lecture on the Orrery in which a Lamp is put in place of the Sun” to give it its full title), and “An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump”.

Joseph Wright of Derby, The Orrery

Joseph Wright of Derby, The Orrery

These paintings of scientific demonstrations are full of light and shadow and detail and drama. They show his interest in science and his keen observation of people and their reactions to what they saw.

It took a while for him to move past the relative intimacy of such scenes to the play of light and shadow on the larger landscape around him. An eruption of Vesuvius that he witnessed seemed to awake a sense of nature’s drama and the desire to paint it. Naturally he was drawn to the light.

You can see that in his sunset painting above.

The first thing you see is the light. Luminous, beautiful colours in the distance, framed by the darkness of the coming night, by the front-lit clouds lowering over the hills, by the sun lingering on hills and jutting points of land, and by coastal rocks just touched by the sunset light. The sun has already withdrawn its light from the rocky slope closest to you, and its darkness emphasizes the light over the sea.

Afterward you become aware of the scale and depth of the scene. You notice how far off the horizon seems, how close the rocky bluff. As you see more and more of the detail – trees on the distant ridge, a sailboat by the point, another boat far off in the distance, animals on the ridge closest to you – you see how small the living creatures are. They are dwarfed by the land, sea and sky that surround them.

And you wonder what he thought – did he contemplate the contradiction between the scientific advances of his time, the sense of growing knowledge that fed the idea of controlling the natural world, and the perception that we are, in the end, small and powerless in the face of the forces of nature?


You can see more of his work in this video from  laoniricArte1 

4 responses to “In the Light of Knowledge

  1. Sunset is an interesting piece Margaret. I notice it bisects horizontally with that dark strip of cloud and the light section flipped would partially match the smoke in shape. Mathematical approach to composition. So enjoy your intros to artists I’ve never heard of.

    • Margaret Mair

      I’m glad you find it interesting, Sarah, and I appreciate your observations – they add to the appreciation of the piece.
      I’ve come to the conclusion that there are so many wonderful artists that no one person could have heard of all, or even many, of them. So if I’m able to introduce a few new ones to other people it’s just another way of adding a touch of richness to the world.

  2. What I love most is the look on the faces of the children looking at the Orrery! Their fascination is inspiring. Thanks for writing about Joseph Wright, Margaret. I’d never heard of him but he taught me something today.

    • Margaret Mair

      I’m glad you found the picture interesting – the children’s fascination is part of what fascinates us, I think. Joseph Wright is an interesting artist, who lived in interesting times. I learned from him too.

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