Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of a Lady, c.1760 

Joseph Wright of Derby ARA 1734 - 1797

Portrait of a Lady, c.1760, Joseph Wright of Derby ARA
Zoom
Oil and Canvas
17th Century
30 x 25 ½ in., 76 X 64.5 cm.
 
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Joseph Wright was one of England’s most skilled and creative artists of the eighteenth century. He is known as both a portraitist and a landscape artist, and is often described as the artist of the industrial revolution. He grasped the challenge of capturing the technological advances and mechanical atmosphere on canvas with vivid, starkly lit paintings, such as ‘Blacksmith’s shop’ [1771, Yale Center for British Art] and ‘Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump’ [1768, National Gallery, London]. He was the only major artist of the eighteenth century to earn his living in the provinces outside London, and portrayed the increasingly prosperous middle-classes and local landed gentry. As a result, his portraits are often free of the high fashion and sensitivities demanded by London society, and are refreshingly honest in their depiction.

This stunning picture is one of Wright’s finest early portraits. It can de dated to the early 1760s, during his first period of success in his native Derby and east midlands. A number of possible identifications can be found in Wright’s account books, such as the ‘Miss Bateman’ and ‘Miss Chadwick’, who are recorded as sitting in Boston in about 1760.

We can immediately see Wright’s debt to Thomas Hudson, the dominant mid-eighteenth century portraitist whose pupil he was until 1757. Hudson favoured the pose and composition seen here for similar half-length female portraits. However, even Wright’s earliest portraits can be easily distinguished from those of Hudson. Wright’s approach to portraiture focused on a direct characterisation and lack of flattery, through which we get a sense of honest engagement with the sitter.

Throughout his career, Wright had a considerable interest in the effects of artificial light, and there is a greater concern than in than Hudson’s works with chiaroscuro. Here, the sitter’s sleeve glows with the light that falls on it from the left, giving it an almost tangible animation. The sitter’s face is lit with a soft, diffuse light, which is brilliantly reinforced with the glint of light in the background by her left cheek. As a result, the sitter is projected out of the canvas towards the viewer, an effect reinforced by the receding feather on her hat.
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