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Underrated Painter Gets His Due

18th-century English artist Joseph Wright is honored in a two-continent exhibition

What a fate - to be forever considered not quite first rate! Yet that is the label that has dogged 18th-century English artist Joseph Wright of Derby, whose works are on view in a two-continent exhibition, his most important yet staged. After being seen here at London's Tate Gallery earlier this spring, ``Joseph Wright of Derby'' is now on view at the Grand Palais in Paris (through July 23) and then goes to the Metropolitan Museum in New York (Sept. 6-Dec. 2).

In the foreword to the scholarly catalog, Tate director Nicholas Serota observes, ``Wright may not be at the very top of the hierarchy of British painters, but he is a consistently interesting and original artist who deserves a place not far from it.''

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Perhaps all this means is that hierarchies of artists are manifestly suspect. The organizers of this show, which amounts to a full-scale, wholehearted recognition of Wright's considerable originality - prefer the comment of one of his contemporaries, profoundly impressed by his masterwork ``An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump'' of 1768. This early reviewer noted, ``Mr. Wright, of Derby, is a very great and uncommon genius in a peculiar way.'' (That word ``peculiar'' didn't mean odd; it meant distinctive.)

Perhaps, also, the tag ``of Derby'' has tended to downgrade Wright's reputation. Its use - to which the artist didn't apparently object - was to avoid confusion with an artist of the same name not from Derbyshire.

If it suggests a limited provincialism for Wright, however, it is unjust. It's true that he lived and worked most of his long career in his birthplace. It's also true that a brief attempt to set up a portrait practice in Bath after Thomas Gainsborough had, as it were, vacated the seat for London, failed. And in a very positive sense it is true that Wright's portraits of the Midlands gentry have a decidedly Midlands flavor: His sitters are fashionable, often very rich or distinctly upper-middle-class, but they are still not London clientele.

Such portraits - generally sturdy and matter-of-fact - are, however, none the worse for that. An artist's grasp of character and sympathy with other human beings are what really make a portrait succeed, not primarily the sitter. Wright has such qualities, and could also bring an idealism to bear on faces and figures which allowed for an ordinary human goodness and happiness to show without often resorting to allegory, fantasy, or stylistic formula.

His bright, energetic portrait of ``Mr. and Mrs. Coltman,'' as a marvellous example, is justly described in the catalog as ``one of the most affectionate portraits of a happy marriage in the whole of British art.''

Wright could also paint an unflattering portrait when necessary. His ``Sir Richard Arkwright'' has all the pot-bellied, blatant importance of the self-made industrial entrepreneur and fixed the man's image for posterity in the way Holbein's portrait did of King Henry VIII.

Derby, particularly as the Industrial Revolution took root, was far from being some rustic backwater. It is perfectly clear that he was not parochial or narrow in outlook - from the variety of Wright's subject-matter, his awareness of other art, the fact that he exhibited regularly in London, and the stimulating, unusual effect a tour to Italy had on his work.

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How, then, is an artist's value to be measured? If it is as an inventor of images which, once seen, stay with obstinate vividness in the memory and make the viewer actually revise his picture of the world around him - then Wright amply qualifies.

Judy Egerton, selector and cataloger for the show, describes Wright as ``continually inventive'' and calls him ``his own man.'' What more could any artist ask for his reputation?

Wright's art is much more than fascinating historical evidence of a period - though it is that as well. Apart from the dramatic ``Air Pump'' picture - in which a bird is shockingly subjected to a deprivation of air - his interest in the science of the day as paintable subject matter was also demonstrated in his picture ``A Philosopher giving that Lecture on the Orrery, in which a lamp is put in place of the Sun.''

Both pictures are concerned with wonder, with a group of people in a darkened room concentrating (most of them) on trying to comprehend scientific truths. At the time of Sir Isaac Newton, popular interest in science had been greatly stimulated. Wright depicts science being popularized, and to do so he develops an already established genre of painting - the candle-lit scene, in which a bright source of light within the picture mysteriously illumines faces and objects in contrast to deep shadows in the background. He is, in fact, adapting what had been a way of depicting sacred, religious experience to express modern, scientific enlightenment.

His love of painting intense light effects in surrounding darkness led him to make pictures of iron forges and blacksmithies (pre-Industrial-Revolution in feeling), moonlight scenes, pictures in which sunset or dawn light is potently evoked, an astonishing, memorable observation of a rainbow, a fire lighting up a night sky in a curtain of orange light.

He could be extraordinarily daring in his use of color to record an observed light-effect. His palette was exercised and extended by his observation - though he was also as capable as any other 18th-century artist of contrivance and artifice in his pictorial strategies.

One subject he painted over and over again was Vesuvius erupting. This, rather than a Poussinesque or Michelanegesque transformation of his style, is what he brought back from Italy. He wrote that he had seen the volcano erupt. We are now informed that he couldn't have. Either way, it was a sight, imagined or witnessed, which literally came to obsess him. It brought together perfectly two aspects of his vision: fascination for scientific phenomena and a delight in the highly dramatic.

The five volcano works in this exhibition, show him completely re-thinking the subject each time. ``Continually inventive'' is right.

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