Moonlight Landscape
Joseph Wright of Derby British 1734-1797
SN 906. Oil on Canvas

by Robert Anderson.

While Wright's fame rests primarily with his pictures of scientific experiments such as "The Orrey" and "An Experiment with a Bird in an Air Pump", he was also a skilled portraitist and a leading painter of mythological subjects. The last twenty years of his life were devoted to landscapes, however, and his stay in Italy (1774-75) strongly influenced this interest in landscape painting.
Wright was the first English painter to base his career outside of London. He at one point attempted to replace Gainsborough as a painter to sophisticated society at Bath - but without success (1775-76). He then returned to Derby where he remained for the remainder of his life.

Wright's interest in science was that of an educated man. He was a member of the Lunar Society which centered its activity on all aspects of contemporary science. It was there that he rubbed shoulders with many prominant men including Erasmus Darwin and Josiah Wedgewood.

By the 1760's he had began to paint candle-lit scenes of various types, showing a fascination with unusual lighting effects that was to run throughout his career. By 1772 he was described as the most famous painter then living for candle-lights. While in Italy he was most impressed with the great annual fireworks display in Rome and painted several pictures of both the display and of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius which he had witnessed.

His increasing later life output of landscapes showed him seeking for truthful observation of natural pheomenon such as rock formations and the effects of light and atmosphere; and his late landscapes show a sensitivity to varying effects of light and weather.

The scene is a moon-lit night. The moon is hidden behind a natural appearing bridge over a stream. On the bridge a man and his donkey plod along while in the lower left a man shoulders a pole with a basket attached - probably to hold the fish he catches. At the right end of the bridge a street-lamp lights the way. While the moon itself is hidden, its rays are reflected on the water and also on the bottom shoreline.

Like many of Wright's landscapes Moonlight Landscape has a hauntingly, somewhat eerie quality about it. Wright has a passion for eerie light effects and this passion is seen here creating a landscape of mood. The positioning of the dark somewhat bulky land of trees and mountain against the bright moon-lit sky creates a strikingly well balanced landscape.

The combination of natural and artificial light in this painting (ie.moon and street-lamp) occurs in most of Wright's other nocturnal landscapes. If painted at a later date one might imagine that an automobile had been parked in the lower right portion of the painting with light being reflected from it's hood although it is probably a rock.

Historical Context:
The Industrial Revolution had gathered a full head of steam with candle-lit factories becoming centers of industrial employment. This fitted Wright's interest in artificial and natural light and shadow. He painted iron forges at night, blacksmith's shops and industrial workshops. His paintings of "men at work" scenes were popular with the aristocracy. Lord Melbourne, Lord Palmerston and Catherine the Great of Russia were among the purchasers of his paintings.