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A Knowing Perception Of Childhood

When the Tate Gallery in London organized a major traveling exhibition of paintings by Joseph Wright of Derby in 1990, curator Judy Egerton excluded works that, in her opinion, did not show the 18th-century painter at his best. She left out "portraits of frumpish women and groups of simpering children."

It is not clear whether she dismissed "Wood Children" on this basis, but it was not in the show.

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Wright made his living painting portraits. But his contemporary reputation was for dramatic candlelight effects. He was also an original landscapist.

And far from being a mere provincial (though most of his life was spent in his home city of Derby, in central England), Wright painted a number of astonishing views of Vesuvius erupting and of a mysterious water-filled cavern or grotto - romantic subjects inspired by a trip to Italy.

The most comprehensive study of Wright is still Benedict Nicolson's 1968 "Joseph Wright of Derby: Painter of Light." Nicolson illustrates and discusses "Wood Children," though he is also critical of it in a way, he admits, that 18th-century connoisseurs would not have been. He calls it "labored and pedantic" compared with portraits of children Wright knew personally.

Wright was an indulgent parent himself, even letting his children play in his studio. While the formality of "Wood Children" cannot be denied, it expresses a knowing perception of childhood.

Three ages are frozen in a moment. The tossed ball, held in the air by the special wizardry of painting, symbolizes a passing instant that lasts forever.

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