Today, a brilliant artist mutes the voice of
18th-century rationalism. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Surely one of the most
unjustly obscure painters is Joseph Wright of
Derby. Wright, born in 1734, was an established
portrait painter by the age of 22. His formal
portraits were as good as any that artists were
grinding out in the mid-1700s.
But something else was going on in Wright's mind.
When he was 32, he exhibited a remarkable picture
in London. A philosopher demonstrates a planetary
model to a group of children by the light of an oil
lamp, which serves as an artificial sun. It is
stunning in its detail and eerie in its mysterious
Wright came back to that theme three years later in
his best-known picture. This time an aging
scientist demonstrates a new air pump for a family
by suffocating a bird in a glass jar. Young and old
alike are fascinated. But one child weeps in
Wright's contemporaries believed that we live in a
rational world and learn its workings through
rational analysis. So Wright painted more than just
the cool, rational faces of rational lords and
ladies. He began exploring the machinery of
By the mid-1760s Wright was doing commissions for
members of the Lunar Society -- that small
literary/scientific group that included Watt,
Priestly, Wedgwood, and Erasmus Darwin. He painted
them, and he learned their science.
One of his pictures has a long title. It starts,
"The Alchymist, in Search of the Philosopher's
Stone, Discovers Phosphorus, and prays for the
successful Conclusion of his operation." And there
the alchemist, this dealer in magical chemistry,
prays over his glowing glass beaker. Wright's
viewers knew that chemists had, by then, built upon
that same alchemical discovery and created far more
modern ideas about the nature of chemical reaction.
So he reminds the rationalists that they haven't
suddenly corrected centuries of error. A great deal
of alchemical thought has actually paved their way.
A year later, another masterpiece. This time it's
an iron forge driven by a water wheel. This time
the eerie light doesn't flow from a lamp or a
candle. It flows from the white-hot bloom of iron
itself. Seven people surround the forge, watching
-- each in one of Shakespeare's seven stages of
life. They remind us that the violent shaping of
metal is a human act with a human center.
Wright painted into the late 1790s. By then other
artists and writers had picked up his Gothic
themes. They saw the human dimension that put
limits on the cold use of intellect. When Wright
was done, we knew what a horrified child in a
painting was telling us. The equation between a
suffocating bird and true understanding is too
complex for cool mind alone to solve.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Egerton, J., Wright of Derby. London:
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1990.
Einberg, E., Acquisition in Focus: Wright of
Derby's An Iron Forge. Apollo, Vol.
138, No. 380, October, 1993, pg. 259.
Jones, R., The Technique, Condition and
Conservation of An Iron Forge. Apollo,
Vol. 138, No. 380, October, 1993, pp. 259, 261.
To see Wright's painting, The Alchymist in
Search of the Philosophers' Stone discovers
Phosphorus (1771) click on the website,
For Experiment on a Bird in the Airpump
(1768) click on:
And for more background on Derby click on:
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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