Joseph Wright of Derby's Cruel, Cruel Enlightenment
|Joseph Wright of Derby, An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, 1768. National Gallery (UK), on loan to Tate Britain|
Joseph Wright of Derby is trending. The Huntington is attempting to secure the loan of Wright's masterpiece, An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump, in exchange for the loan of Thomas Gainsborough's Blue Boy. That such an exchange would be attempted speaks to the rising critical fortunes of Wright. Blue Boy may be the most famous 18th-century British painting, but a smart contingent now rates Experiment on a Bird the greatest British painting of its time.
This would have thoroughly mystified Henry Huntington, and no less Joseph Duveen, the dealer who sold Huntington Blue Boy, Pinkie (by Thomas Lawrence), and other linchpins of the Huntington collection.
|Joseph Wright of Derby, Two Boys with a Bladder, 1769-70. J. Paul Getty Museum|
Across town, the Getty Museum has put on view Wright's Two Boys with a Bladder. The Getty purchased the painting in 2019, subject to a British export license. That was granted just before COVID lockdown, so the Getty has not been able to show it until now.
Why is Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797) suddenly such a big deal? A contemporary of Gainsborough and Reynolds, Wright made his living from portraits, working the second cities of Derby and Liverpool. Wright also depicted original subjects now held to epitomize the British Enlightenment: scientific experiments, factories and forges, art academies, and volcanic eruptions. Many of these works are nocturnes masterfully capturing the effects of artificial or ambient light.
Reynolds was not impressed. He indicted Wright for the high crime of unseriousness. Reynolds felt that paintings should look back to Italian art history and lofty verities. Wright's art was too topical, too trivial, too exact, and too odd.
|Joseph Wright of Derby, Vesuvius from Portici, 1773-76. Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens|
In 1997 the Huntington bought a Wright painting of Vesuvius erupting. It's the best British painting the Huntington has added since its founders' time. In recent years not only the Huntington and Getty but the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Metropolitan Museum have scraped together acquisition funds to buy paintings by Wright of Derby. Has any American museum bought a Reynolds, Gainsborough, or Lawrence painting in this millennium?
|Joseph Wright of Derby, An Iron Forge, 1771-73. Tate Britain, London|
|Detail of Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump|
Wright's An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump, owned by the UK National Gallery, is normally on loan to Tate Britain. The wild-haired central figure verges on mad scientist. To his right, a scholar mansplains how a cockatoo pet dies when deprived of oxygen in a vacuum. Oxygen was a new discovery of Wright's epoch. Not even William Blake suspected that the satanic mills of the industrial revolution were turning oxygen into CO2, a global experiment that would one day come home to roost.
(Today's physics teachers do a no-animals-harmed experiment with a Peep marshmallow bird.)
The Getty's Two Boys with a Bladder is every bit as peculiar as its title. Pig bladders were used as toys, precursors to rubber balloons. They were brandished by fools at carnival, and sometimes filled with dry peas to serve as rattles. In Two Boys a candle's unseen flame turns the bladder into a blood-veined sun. It illuminates two boys wearing costumes unassignable to any time or culture.
|Joseph Wright of Derby, Two Girls Dressing a Kitten by Candlelight, about 1768–70|
Two Boys is believed to have been paired with Two Girls Dressing a Kitten by Candlelight at London's stately Kenwood House. The girls are about the age of the boys, in similarly outlandish dress, and the dimensions coincide.
Two Girls is reportedly the most popular painting in the Kenwood collection. For the record, that's insane. Kenwood has a Vermeer and the best Rembrandt self-portrait in the solar system. But the survey says… the cat picture.
The Kenwood Two Girls has nevertheless inspired a sizable corpus of scholarship. With tail protruding between legs, the kitten must be a surrogate for shamed masculinity. Wright did not marry until 1773, at the age of 39—an incel in the age of Casanova.
A disturbing subtext common to the Girls, Boys, and An Experiment in an Air Pump is cruelty to animals. Among those to remark on this was minimalist and manslaughter person of interest Carl Andre. In a 1996 essay Andre rated Experiment in an Air Pump "the greatest British painting" and wrote that "Wright had given us a vision of the eroticism which underlies all art and of the sadism which is one great source of scientific curiosity."
Three years later art historian Susan L. Siegfried explored the Kenwood painting in the context of Experiment, Andre, feminism, and sadism: "In Dressing the Kitten, Wright focused on the perversity of female pleasure. This seems to push his work further toward a concern with aesthetic experience, specifically with pleasure resulting from pain—that is, he engaged a thematics of viewing that questions the moral basis of the pleasure we take in art."
|William Hogarth, First Stage of Cruelty, 1851|
Siegfried connects Two Girls to William Hogarth's 1751 print series, The Four Stage of Cruelty, which depicts children mistreating animals. She does not mention the Getty painting, Two Boys with a Bladder, but some parallels are evident. The boys use a deceased pig's remains as a plaything. A red vein forms a Christ-like stick figure.
Wright repeated the boys & bladder theme several times. A Two Boys Fighting Over a Bladder in a private collection out-weirds even the Getty painting.
|Joseph Wright of Derby, Two Boys by Candlelight, Blowing a Bladder, about 1770. The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens|
A variant at the Huntington, closer to the Getty composition, has more waif-like costumes, recalling the pictures of beggar-boys blowing embers by El Greco and the Caravaggisti. It is not so well-preserved as the Getty painting, but both use metal foil under the bladder to create a luminous glow. The Huntington version had been considered the Kenwood pendant until the rediscovery of the Getty painting.
Should the Huntington get the loan of Experiment on a Bird, it intends to build a focus exhibition around it, including scientific texts from the period. The institution has already been planning an exhibition for the upcoming Pacific Standard Time installment that is to present the Huntington Two Boys alongside icons of scientific visualization, from Robert Hooke's engraved fold-out microscopy to contemporary visualizations of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.