Joseph Wright of Derby (English Derby 1734 - 1797)
Dovedale by Moonlight, ca. 1784-85
Signed bottom center: I. W.
Oil on canvas
24 5/8 x 30 5/8 in. (62.5 x 77.8 cm)
R. T. Miller, Jr. Fund, 1951.30
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Dovedale by Moonlight, an evocative nocturnal view of the Dovedale valley in Derbyshire, exemplifies Wright's keen interests in dramatic lighting effects and picturesque subject matter.
The Dove River is a tributary of the Trent River in Derbyshire; Dovedale, a narrow, gorgelike valley about three miles in length, is located about fifteen miles northeast of Derby. Eighteenth-century observers particularly appreciated the picturesque qualities of the site, with "rocks of the most singular and extraordinary shape... In some places they are seen rising up to the perpendicular height of thirty or forty yards in the form of pyramids, or spires of churches... In other parts, they lean over the river, and seem to threaten immediate destruction...."1 The towering rock formations to either side of the river in the present scene are known as Tissington Spires, probably because of their resemblance to the spires of Gothic cathedrals generally, and specifically to those of the Derbyshire church of St. Mary's Tissington.2
A View of the Present State Derbyshire with an Account its most remarkable Antiquities exhibits the tightly organized composition and simplification of forms typical of Wright's English landscapes of the mid 1780s. Also characteristic of these works is the conscious merging of the Real and Ideal; although easily identifiable, the salient topographic features of the Dovedale site are subject to the artist's manipulation of individual elements to produce a more effective composition.
Wright's signature nocturnal landscapes are in part a natural outgrowth of his fascination with the striking effects of artificial lighting; Nicolson has also, quite plausibly, suggested that Wright was influenced by the moonlit landscapes of the German artist Adam Elsheimer and his Dutch followers in Rome, whose work he would have seen during his Italian sojourn.3 Interestingly, a letter written by the artist in 1787 (thus within a year or two of the Oberlin painting) implies that he did not observe and transcribe such atmospheric phenomena directly from nature: "Moon lights & fire lights are but a sort of work with me for I cant with impunity go out at night and study the former, & the latter I have seen but once, and at a time too, when I thought not of painting such effects."4
Wright painted at least five views of Dovedale, each from a slightly different vantage point but all sharing the same dramatic topography.5 As indicated in the Provenance, the Oberlin picture is probably identical with the second picture mentioned in the following (undated) entry in Wright's Account Book: "A View in Dove Dale Morn. Companion in Do. Moonlight 3 qrs sold to Ed Mundy Esqr., £31.10. each."6 Wright frequently paired day and nighttime views of the same site to contrast dramatic effects of light and atmosphere. The original companion piece to the Oberlin picture, , is now in the collection of Sir John Crompton-Inglefield, Parwich Hall near Ashbourne, Derbyshire.7 In addition, there are two versions of the Oberlin composition known, differing from the original only in minor details. Wright himself seems to have occasionally painted a second version of a particularly successful composition. An unsigned canvas in the Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation, Houston, has been proposed as a contemporary, possibly autograph, second version of the Oberlin picture.8 The Derby Art Gallery houses a third version of the composition, rather larger than the Oberlin painting, which is certainly a copy.9 Both pictures were exhibited in London at Robin's Rooms in 1785 (nos. 18 and 19, respectively).
M. E. Wieseman
Joseph Wright was born into a middle-class professional Derby family on 3 September 1734. His father, John, was an attorney and town clerk in Derby. Wright's formal artistic training began in 1751, when he became a pupil of the portraitist Thomas Hudson (1701-1779) in London. After two years, Wright returned to Derby, but in 1756-57 was back with Hudson in London for an additional period of instruction. In 1757 he moved back to his native city and quickly gained a local reputation as a portraitist. Wright first exhibited at the London Society of Artists in 1765. Among his earliest successes were dramatically candlelit scenes of modern scientific subjects: Philosopher Giving a Lecture on the Orrery (1766; Derby Art Gallery) and Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768; London, The National Gallery) are still two of the artist's best-known paintings. His earliest known pure landscape paintings date from about 1772.
Wright spent most of his life in Derby, except for stints in Liverpool (1768-71) and Bath (1775-77), and a visit to Italy in 1773-75. The Italian journey had a profound effect on his choice of subject matter, most specifically in fiery views of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius (of which he painted more than thirty), and dramatic Mediterranean grottos. Wright continued to paint until about 1796. He died in Derby on 29 August 1797.
Wright was a versatile and often unconventional painter, producing portraits, history paintings, modern scientific subjects, and landscapes. His works demonstrate a profound preoccupation with the effects of light: pictures of smithies and forges, volcanic eruptions, views of moonlight or dramatic clouds. For most of his working life the artist kept an account book (London, National Portrait Gallery), which records pictures, patrons, and prices. Many of his compositions were disseminated through reproductive mezzotints and engravings.
Nicolson, Benedict. Joseph Wright of Derby, Painter Light . 2 vols. London and New York, 1968.
Egerton, Judy, et al. Wright of Derby . Exh. cat., The Tate Gallery, London, 1990.
Purchased from the artist by Edward Mundy, Shipley10
Acquired by William Martin, Broadstairs, Kent (possibly 1930s-40s)
Collection Captain and Mrs. R. Langton Douglas, from whom purchased in 1951.
London, Robin's Rooms, 1785. Pictures Painted by J. Wright, of Derby... Cat. no. 19.
New York, Durlacher Brothers, 1960. A Loan Exhibition: Joseph Wright of Derby, 1734-1797. 1 - 26 March. Cat. no. 22.
Poughkeepsie, N. Y., Vassar College Art Gallery, 1964. Nature and Natural Phenomena in Art of the Eighteenth Century. 20 February - 13 March. Cat. no. 24.
London, The Tate Gallery, 1990. Wright of Derby 7 February - 22 April (also shown at Paris, Galeries Nationales d'Exposition du Grand Palais; and New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art). Cat. no. 110.
Bemrose, William. The Life and Works of Joseph Wright, A.R.A. commonly called "Wright Derby". London, 1885, pp. 22, 123.
Hamilton, Chloe. "A Landscape by Wright of Derby." Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 12, no. 1 (Fall 1954), pp. 16-22.
Nicolson, Benedict. Joseph Wright of Derby. Exh. cat., The Arts Council, Tate Gallery, London, and Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, 1958, p. 28.
Hamilton, Chloe. "Catalogue of R. T. Miller, Jr. Fund Acquisitions." Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 16, no. 2 (Winter 1959), cat. no. 50; no. 3 (Spring 1959), ill. p. 255.
Stechow, Wolfgang. Catalogue of European and American Painting Sculpture in the Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College. Oberlin, 1967, pp. 165-66, fig. 86.
Nicolson, Benedict. Joseph Wright of Derby, Painter Light. London and New York, 1968, vol. 1, pp. 90, 91, 97, 265, cat. no. 317 (dated ca. 1784-88), p. 278; vol. 2, pl. 261.
Butlin, Martin. Aspects of British Painting 1550-1800, from the Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation. Houston, 1988, p. 114.
Egerton, Judy. In Wright of Derby. Exh. cat., The Tate Gallery, London, 1990, p. 181.
The paint layer is generally thin to moderate, with few areas of impasto; it is applied over a thin, reflective white ground which imparts a luminosity to the work, especially in the sky.11
The original linen twill fabric has been lined onto a lightweight linen with a glue-paste mixture, probably in the early part of this century. The somewhat flattened surface of the painting is a result of that process. The stretcher was probably also replaced at that time. There is an old tear in the original canvas at upper left (in the sky directly above the most prominent spire). A few losses, mostly associated with that tear, have been inpainted. The painting was most recently treated in 1989, with a surface cleaning and consolidation of a few areas of incipient flaking. The varnish is uneven and slightly yellowed.
1. James Pilkington, A View of the Present State Derbyshire with an Account its most remarkable Antiquities (Derby, 1789); cited by Judy Egerton in Wright of Derby (exh. cat., The Tate Gallery, London,1990), p. 181.
2. As noted in Wright of Derby (exh. cat., The Tate Gallery, London, 1990), p. 181.
3. Benedict Nicolson, Joseph Wright of Derby, Painter Light, vol. 1 (London and New York, 1968), p. 91.
4. Letter from Wright to Long, Surgeon, Chancery Lane, dated 22 April 1787; quoted in Benedict Nicolson, Joseph Wright of Derby, Painter Light, vol. 1 (London and New York, 1968), p. 88.
5. See Benedict Nicolson, Joseph Wright of Derby, Painter Light, vol. 1 (London and New York, 1968), pp. 265-66, nos. 315-19.
6. Noted in Benedict Nicolson, Joseph Wright of Derby, Painter Light, vol. 1 (London and New York, 1968), p. 265.
7. Oil on canvas, 63.5 x 78.7 cm, signed (like the Oberlin picture): I.W.; Crompton-Inglefield Collection.
8. Oil on canvas, 62 x 74.5 cm, inv. TR164.87-92; see Martin Butlin, Aspects of British Painting 1550-1800, from the Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation (Houston, 1988), p. 114. Nicholson (Joseph Wright of Derby, Painter Light, vol. 1 [London and New York, 1968], p. 266) refers to the Blaffer Foundation painting (then in the collection of Sir John Crompton-Inglefield) as a "version" of Oberlin's Dovedale by Moonlight, although in a letter dated 30 August 1965 (in the museum files) he termed this picture a "copy."
9. Oil on canvas, 76.2 x 91.44 cm.
10. Edward Mundy was a member of a younger branch of the prominent Mundy family of Markeaton Hall, near Derby, which had commissioned several portraits from the artist. See Benedict Nicolson, Joseph Wright of Derby, Painter Light , vol. 1 (London and New York, 1968), p. 97.11. On Wright's materials and technique, see Rica Jones, "Wright of Derby's Techniques of Painting," in Wright of Derby (exh. cat., The Tate Gallery, London, 1990), pp. 263-71, and esp. pp. 269-70.