Disrecognized Space

agressi sunt mare tenebrarum, quid in eo esset exploraturi

Joseph Wright of Derby: Illuminating the question of the Enlightenment

The Enlightenment describes a period during the eighteenth century when a series of revolutions occurred in scientific and philosophical thinking, leading to a movement promoting the supremacy of individual freedom and reason. This movement was reflected by intellectuals throughout Europe including in the arts, and prominently in the paintings of Joseph Wright of Derby whose canvasses portray a subtle, but not unequivocal, conversation regarding the way the world had become newly illuminated, both literally and metaphorically, and which pose questions that demand the viewer consider the ethical implications of the changes the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution were bringing.

“The Enlightenment” is an overarching term that becomes less clear the more closely it is interrogated, and even more so in modern examinations of the concept. Van den Eeden (2011) notes that Tzvetan Todorov identifies three formative ideas: autonomy, human-centred actions, and universality. Yet, even in the eighteenth century, the Enlightenment was a concept with multiple meanings rather than universality (Outram 2013, 1). The Enlightenment is more helpfully considered as a series of ideas and debates that interlock, though not without often contesting each other (Outram 2013, 3). While examining changing interpretations of the Enlightenment, Outram (2013, 4) notes that Peter Gay saw it as an application of reason, inimical to religion, and seeking to change society through freedom and progress. She also notes that many modern philosophers argue that the Enlightenment is not closed, but is still very much a concept that is being worked out in the present (Outram 2013, 7).

Kant (1784) famously declared “Sapere aude! Have courage to use your own reason!- that is the motto of enlightenment” arguing that religion in particular prevented this from occurring. Foucault (1984, 5) notes that Kant offers a useful general definition of the Enlightenment as “the moment when humanity is going to put its own reason to use, without subjecting itself to any authority” though Foucault cautions that there are both legitimate and illegitimate uses of reason. Bristow (2010) describes, somewhat more dogmatically, that the Enlightenment was a period from the mid seventeenth to the end of the eighteenth century, a period of collapsing presuppositions about society and humanity, and a period of multiple revolutions in science, philosophy, society and politics which “culminates” (sic) in the French Revolution. For the postmodernists, the Enlightenment is portrayed as one of many non-universal Grand Narratives which gain meaning only from being temporally and culturally situated (Barker 2008, 195).

Sir Isaac Newton was one of the most prominent scientists of the Enlightenment and whose experimental procedure epitomised its ideals. He deliberately excluded extraneous ideas, stating: “it is not the Business of Experimental Philosophy to teach the Causes of things any further than they can be proved by Experiments” (quoted in Smith 2001, 327). While famous for his Laws of Motion, Newton first conducted experiments into optics which, quite literally, split apart the longstanding belief that white light was a homogenous subject (Gross 1988, 1-2). Bronowski (1973, 127-128) eloquently imagines this new understanding of colour scattering like Newton’s spectrum across London and through the arts, with a vibrant sense of colour imbuing everything. Light and optics infuse the Enlightenment (not just the word itself): Barker (2008, 188) states that the Enlightenment thought reason could “illuminate the world”. The Enlightenment and Opticks are inextricably entwined: how the world was seen had altered.

Enlightenment philosophers believed that humanity could be improved, if not even perfected, through rational processes and this belief also permeated the arts at the time (Craske 1997, 91-92). Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797) was well placed to embody the Enlightenment and its concepts as an amateur scientist and Freemason (Craske 1997, 210). While he studied in London, and earned a living as a portraitist, Wright is best known today for his images of the Industrial Revolution (which was occurring close to him in the north of England), and scientific experiments (Wright was a member of the scientific Lunar Society) (Davies et al 2011, 802). As well as images of the changes the Industrial Revolution was making to the towns around him, such as paintings of industrial forges and blacksmith’s shops, Wright also visited Vesuvius in 1774, resulting in over thirty images of the volcano erupting – geology was also making major changes to knowledge during the Enlightenment, causing people to question the veracity of Biblical aging of the earth (Kemp 1998, 645). All of these images demonstrate his fascination, and facility, with light (and shadow) as the fire of the volcano echoes the eruption of scientific thought and rationalism.


Figure 1. Joseph Wright of Derby, Vesuvius from Portici, c.1774-1776. Oil on canvas, 101cm x 127cm. Huntington Library, Pasadena, CA. Reproduced from Wikimedia Commons, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Joseph_Wright_of_Derby_-_Vesuvius_from_Portici.jpg (accessed Mar 10, 2014).

Light, of course, is fundamental to seeing (Arnheim 1974, 303) while the use of shadows or dark gradients can effectively strengthen the effect of illumination (Arnheim 1974, 307). Arnheim (1974, 325) further suggests that having the light source inside a picture creates a self-contained world – “Nothing exists beyond the corners to which the rays reach.” Wright was not the first artist to paint candle light images, but his paintings of scientific experiments encapsulate the new light of understanding, embodying the Enlightenment ideal of rationally explaining and presenting the universe, while also replacing Renaissance chiaroscuro with a scientifically based lighting. This is particularly evident in three famous paintings.

The Alchemyst, in Search of the Philosopher’s Stone, discovers Phosphorus, and Prays for the successful Conclusion of his operation, as was the custom of the Ancient Chymical Astrologers (1771, reworked 1795) depicts a sage kneeling in wonder at the explosion of light his experiment has produced, overpowering, in the shadows, two assistants feebly lit by lamplight, and the moon palely seen high above. Over the jetting phosphorus lie the alchemist’s ancient papers, piled haphazardly, and apparently about to go up in flames as the old ignorance is about to be consumed by modern scientific wonders. Craske (1997, 211) also sees Masonic symbolism in the painting, noting the Freemason’s motto “Lux e Tenebris” (Light out of Darkness) and this new light, a light of apparently endless knowledge and supreme freedom, illuminates Wright’s major paintings (Craske 1997, 213). While Craske links this to contemporary light shows this mundane explanation hides the symbolism of Wright’s illumination, signifying a Newtonian overthrowing of the old understanding: Newton’s Opticks command the viewer’s eye in Wright’s canvasses to look anew, proclaiming the ideals of the Enlightenment.

Figure 2: Joseph Wright of Derby, The Alchymist, in Search of the Philosopher’s Stone, Discovers Phosphorus, and prays for the successful Conclusion of his operation, as was the custom of the Ancient Chymical Astrologers, exhibited 1771, reworked and dated 1795. Oil on canvas, 127cm x 101.6cm. Derby Art Gallery, Derby, UK. Reproduced from Olga’s Gallery, http://www.abcgallery.com/W/wright/wright42.html (accessed Mar 10, 2014).

Wright repeatedly portrayed the problem of light and the “science of representation” (Honour 1968, 98). Yet Wright equally portrayed the representation of science. In An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768) Wright presents a complex play of lines formed by the illumination and shadows, and the people’s bodies and limbs, that seems to spiral out from the air pump (which is the focus of the picture, rather than the dying bird), through the young girls and the scientist, and dissipating into the onlookers, just as scientific discoveries were flowing through society. The youngest girl could equally be looking at the bird, or following the line of the finger of the man comforting her, which points up, signifying the ascent of knowledge. The older girl, however, provides a salutary commentary on the experiment, hiding her face from the death, asserting that experiment also impacts on feeling (Honour 1968, 98). Knowledge and science, Wright seems to be urging, must be tempered with human feeling to prevent a dehumanisation of society (Smith 1988, 21).

Baudot (2012, 5) notes that the air pump depicted is around a century old: Wright does not intend to show a recent discovery, but rather to prompt the viewer to consider the nature of experiment and science. What is significant are the contrasting responses to the experiment (and, hence, the Enlightenment itself) shown in the viewers’ reactions (Baudot 2012, 19). Wright also prompts us to consider the relationship of Enlightenment discoveries to religion, picturing the bird in a manner similar to representations of the Holy Spirit as a dove in religious painting (Baudot 2012, 21). For example, the Holy Spirit in Piero della Francesca’s The Baptism of Christ is echoed in Wright’s bird (though Wright’s is a cockatoo). Siegfried (1999, 46) observes how these ethical questions Wright asks are articulated through the women (and girls) in his paintings. These questions are extended to the viewer who is obliged to interpret and provide meaning to the image: “the viewer is situated in a web of competing expectations” as Helmers (2001, 73) puts it.

Figure 3: Joseph Wright of Derby, An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, 1768. Oil on canvas, 183cm X 244cm. The National Gallery, London. Reproduced from Wikimedia Commons, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:An_Experiment_on_a_Bird_in_an_Air_Pump_by_Joseph_Wright_of_Derby,_1768.jpg (accessed Mar 10, 2014).

Figure 4: Piero della Francesca, The Baptism of Christ, 1450s. Tempera on panel, 167cm × 116cm. National Gallery, London. (detail). Reproduced from Wikimedia Commons, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Piero,_battesimo_di_cristo_04.jpg (accessed Mar 10, 2014).

In the earlier A Philosopher Giving that Lecture on the Orrery, in which a Lamp is put in the place of the Sun (ca. 1763-1765) Wright also depicts a scientific demonstration to a group of onlookers that also includes two children, though the composition here is calmer and more contained. Here the ellipses of the orrery are echoed in the larger ellipse formed by the onlookers (Kleiner 2009 759). The children here are not critics of the scene, but rather are located within the lines of the orrery itself, as if their heads were planets to be measured and defined. The orrery, Fara (2007, 4) states, was the Enlightenment equivalent of the DNA helix today, a symbol of science itself, thus Wright shows Science encompassing and echoing nature and the world within his canvas. Furthermore, the Sun is replaced by artificial light, symbol of the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment’s belief in rational(ising) thought. Here too, the viewer is posed unanswered questions. As Helmers observed with The Air Pump, this painting provokes the viewer in pondering the implications of the Enlightenment, its purposes and aims, and what its outcomes might be, counterpointing the human condition and the cosmos (Duro 2010, 670). Wright’s paintings of scientific demonstrations represent transformative moments when instability and disequilibrium impact on society, not always for the better (Duro 2010, 674).


Figure 5: Joseph Wright, A Philosopher Giving a Lecture on the Orrery, in which a lamp is put in place of the Sun, 1766. Oil on canvas, 147.3cm X 203.2cm. Derby Museums and Art Gallery, Derby. Reproduced from Wikimedia Commons, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wright_of_Derby,_The_Orrery.jpg (accessed Mar 10, 2014).

The Enlightenment was a series of narratives prominent during the eighteenth century predicated upon freedom and reason, and turning against religion, which still resonate today. A major Enlightenment figure was Isaac Newton who, through his revolutionary Opticks, changed how light was understood. Joseph Wright, in his turn, reflected the shifting values the Enlightenment brought to his world, both on the surface of his canvasses and in their deeper implications. In images of scientific endeavours and demonstrations Wright showed the new fascination with such discoveries but he also used the new light of Newton to provoke questions about the shadowing of ethics and meaning, to ask “What is a human response to these changes?” and to place these new marvels in a social context. His light channels and clarifies the new world of Newton’s vision by way of its social implications, creating a moment when society both depicts and questions itself.


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