Disrecognized Space

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Art against Empire: William Blake, J M W Turner and the age of revolution

From the mid seventeenth century the revolutionary period in Europe and America saw turbulent political and social changes. These changes were also reflected in, and driven by, the arts, not least in Romanticism’s extolling of the “individual” and insight. One of the earliest such artists was William Blake whose works evince a strongly revolutionary spirit, set against tyranny and enslavement of all kinds. Largely ignored in his lifetime, Blake has since been recognised as sui generis and a profound voice for his age. In contrast, J M W Turner, a generation later than Blake, was much more successful, though he also made political criticisms in his art. Turner’s later works, however, led to a rejection by critics. Both, in different ways, portrayed the influence of the Romantic and revolutionary strands of their world.

Romanticism is a term full of meaning but difficult to pin down, containing two hundred years of interpretations (Craske 1997, 7). It is, perhaps, more appropriate to refer to “romanticisms” instead, recognising that there was no monolithic Romantic movement in all countries and, indeed, many thought the term one of insult (Craske 1997, 10). Day (1996, 6) considers it more relevant to ask how individual Romantics reflected the movement, rather than trying to fit them to one template. It is also helpful to see Romanticism not as a movement for something, but more accurately a revolt against standards (Russell 1961, 651). In this sense, Romantics echoed the revolutionary fervour of the time as deeply political artists (Williams 1958, 48).

Regardless of the difficulty of definitions, Romantic art can be considered broadly as defined by an emphasis on an individual artist’s expression of imagination via a personal vision (Craske 1997, 36). Schlegel stated that a Romantic had to have a “religion of his (sic) own, an original view of the infinite” (Hughes 1987, 90). In Romanticism, art and beauty became terms that relied on the individual’s definitions, rather than a collective understanding (Harris 2003, 64).

It was not just the Romantics who were in revolt: from the late eighteenth century to the mid nineteenth, the French, American and Industrial revolutions were taking place, partly charged by a new concept of individual rights and freedoms espoused in the works of thinkers such as Thomas Paine (Day 1996, 12). The notion of liberty drove these revolutionary thinkers, though it must be noted that there were many such movements, rather than a unified entity (Makdisi 2003b, 59). Agriculture in Britain was also changing, leading to the enclosure of commons, and increasing commercialisation (Stewart 2012, 161).

The Romantic period is considered to extend from the French Revolution in 1789 (or, alternatively, the publication of Lyrical Ballads in 1798) over the next four decades (Day 1996, 2). Artists at this time were unable to escape these historical currents: some, such as William Blake (1757-1827), both celebrated the new age while condemning the social ills it created (Smith 1988, 23). Indeed, Blake’s lifetime was essentially the same as that of the revolutionary period (Williams 1958, 49). Hobsbawn (1962, 255) has suggested that a crude simplification of artists of this period sees them as inspired by the French Revolution, horrified by the Industrial Revolution, and shaped by the changes bourgeois society was bringing to how artists lived and worked.

Blake stands as an early example of a Romantic artist and one who consistently expressed a vision so personal that he was viewed as a madman by contemporaries (Hargraves 2010, 215). Even today Blake’s idiosyncratic religious visions can obscure that his concerns were also always political and social (Day 1996, 95). Blake reacted strongly against Enlightenment ideals of rationalism and the materialism of the Industrial Revolution, expressing instead a divine inspiration (Hargraves 2010, 244). Unlike the general philosophical view of the revolutionary period that freedom should not be imposed by authority but by the self, Blake saw this as the imposition of yet another controlling system. For Blake, as Makdisi observes (2003b, 274), saw freedom as a release to act, not restrain, and as a removal of limits. To Blake, all systems were forms of enslavement, limiting the imagination (Kiralis 1956, 131). His lifelong opposition to tyranny ranged from early association with radical elements, through to his late works concerning a supreme human liberty (Swearingen 1992, 125).

In Blake’s lifetime corn became increasingly scarce, inflation ran rampant, famine frequent, taxes higher, and riots in reaction common (Bronowski 1965, 43). For half of Blake’s lifetime England was at war (Browowski 1965, 14). English economic supremacy was ending, and the old, village, way of life along with it (Bronowski 1965, 44). London’s population grew from 675,000 in 1750 to 2,362,200 in 1850 (Facos 2011, 13). The Industrial Revolution was centred in Britain and, according to Hobsbawm (1962, 26) ranked as one of the most significant events in world history. It brought, however, many deleterious changes, especially to labourers. Blake witnessed the Industrial Revolution turning art into a productive process, a mechanical endeavour no different from the other new production processes being implemented in the factories of the North (Williams 1958, 52). Blake was one of the earliest artists to recognise this upheaval (Hobsbawn 1962, 263). He was an anachronism whose artisanal genius was challenged by the commodification of culture, even as he was forced to work within that milieu to earn a living (Makdisi 2003a, 131). Blake was swept along by these forces, literally so when, in 1780, he took part in the Gordon riots and witnessed the burning of Newgate prison (Wilson 1978, 18).

Blake was one among many loosely aligned religious Dissenters who supported radical beliefs, both religious and political (Day 1996, 17-18). Joseph Johnson, a bookseller, became the centre of meetings of these radical thinkers, among whom Blake was exposed to dissenting ideas (Bronowski 1965, 65). He opposed not just political empires, however, but also denounced all oppressive systems, including slavery and arbitrary moral and ethical codes which literally and metaphorically imprisoned the poor, women and the weak (Day 1996, 25). For Blake, politics and religion were the same thing (Erdman 1982, 207).

Art was a way of expressing revolution. In his annotations to The Laocoön Blake asserted a binary opposition of “Empire against Art” (Erdman 1982, 274). Blake saw art as a social function, and a way of avoiding the slavery of mundane revolutions (Frye 1951, 35). The revolutionary age is directly addressed in many of Blake’s images, though the personal nature of his mythology in his images means that it cannot easily be held down to one interpretation (Bronowski 1965, 30). As Blake wrote: “He who binds to himself a joy/ Does the winged life destroy” (Erdman 1982, 470). Nonetheless, there are clear themes that drive Blake’s art, particularly the struggle against restraint and the urge towards freedom. For Blake this meant overthrowing socio-political restraints as much as self-imposed psychological restraints (Makdisi 2003b, 81-83).

The illuminated books present a combination of text and image which, unlike the mechanical processes used in printing that produced multiple, identical, copies, were works that were hand printed and coloured, so each edition is a unique object. This leads to each work being readable in no one, canonical, way. The object has become unstable, as Makdisi (2003a, 114) points out. Just as society had become unstable, Blake’s art reflected this shifting. Blake created an unparalleled radical art, full of energy, where words and image operate on multiple interacting levels (Frye 1951, 38).

The Songs of Experience (1794) in particular directly addresses the poverty of the London working class. Apart from three years in Felpham, Blake lived all his life in London and knew its ills well (Damon 1973, 244). In London Blake attacks the oppression around him, the word “charter’d” showing how business has enclosed even the streets and the river, commerce reigning supreme, evoking an angry response (Tomlins 2009, 196). Blake shows a child leading an old man who may be Blake’s creator god Urizen, self-crippled by attempting to redeem his failed system of creation by imposing yet another system (Keynes 1970, 150).


Figure 1. William Blake, Songs of Innocence and of Experience, copy L, object 51 (Bentley 46, Erdman 46, Keynes 46) “LONDON”, 1795. Relief etching with watercolour. 11.1 x 6.9cm. Yale Center for British Art, Yale University. Reproduced from The Blake Archive, http://www.blakearchive.org/exist/blake/archive/object.xq?objectid=songsie.l.illbk.51&java=no (accessed March 31, 2014).

A Divine Image, intended for the Songs of Experience but excluded by Blake and not printed until after his death, expresses his revulsion at the baser aspects of humanity. Los, the poet, forges the sun, beating Imagination into the limiting industrial symbol of iron in a forge (Keynes 1970, 125). The literal image suggests how oppressive forces, such as the French Revolution or industrialisation, also beat and forge individuals into submission (Beaney n.d.).


Figure 2.William Blake, ‘A Divine Image’, from Songs of Innocence and of Experience, shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul, copy BB, 1831-2. Relief etching. 11.1 x 6.9cm. The British Library. Reproduced from The Open University, http://www.open.edu/openlearn/ocw/mod/oucontent/view.php?id=1880&extra=thumbnail_idp2954496 (accessed March 31, 2014).

In the engraving Albion Rose Blake depicts Albion (signifying England) rising above the smoky blackness of the Industrial Revolution in a political and a spiritual gesture while, at his feet, a moth emerges from a chrysalis as a symbol of rebirth (Damon 1973, 13).The engraving bears the inscription (not shown) “Albion rose from where he labourd at the Mill with Slaves”.


Figure 3. William Blake, Albion rose, 1804. Engraving, etching and drypoint. 25 x 19cm. The British Library. Reproduced from The British Museum http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=1354527&partId=1 (accessed March 31, 2014).

The success of the American War of Independence and the French Revolution seemed to herald of the new supremacy of individual rights and freedom (Day 1996, 12). In America (1793-4) Blake presented a prophetic and mythic interpretation of the overturning of British oppression (Day 1996, 21). Damon (1973, 20) describes the publication of America, with Blake’s name prominent on it, as an overtly defiant act, and the poem controversial in light of the growing counter-revolution. In this “prophecy” Blake shows Orc, the spirit of revolution, surrounded by the flames of Hell, as Urizen’s limited vision would see it, but which, in Blake’s eternity, are the unquenchable fires of rebellion spreading through the American colonies (indeed, the licking flames press against “the Colonies” in the fourth line (Erdman 1974, 148).


Figure 4. William Blake, America a Prophecy, copy A, object 12 (Bentley 12, Erdman 10, Keynes 10), 1795. Relief etching with pen and watercolour. 23.5 x 16.9cm. Morgan Library and Museum, New York. Reproduced from The Blake Archive, http://www.blakearchive.org/exist/blake/archive/object.xq?objectid=america.a.illbk.12&java=no (accessed March 31, 2014).

In another plate from America, Blake writes his most direct celebration of revolutionary freedom from slavery: “For Empire is no more, and now the Lion & Wolf shall cease.” (Erdman 1982, 53). To illustrate this poetic equivalent of the Revolutionary Declaration of Independence, Blake shows a naked youth risen from the grave of slavery (a skull lies by his side) as he gazes into the bright air and new growth surrounds the words (Erdman 1974, 144)


Figure 5. William Blake, America a Prophecy,copy O, object 8 (Bentley 8, Erdman 6, Keynes 6), 1821. Relief etching with pen and watercolour. 23.4 x 16.7cm. Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Reproduced from The Blake Archive, http://www.blakearchive.org/exist/blake/archive/object.xq?objectid=america.o.illbk.08&java=no (accessed March 31, 2014).

The advent of the Terror, however, showed this optimism to be ill founded, and led to a reactionary backlash (Day 1996, 14). Blake’s later writings reflected this disillusionment, and he also turned to a more metaphysical, less overtly political, narrative as radicals in England were subjected to suppression (Ward 2003, 25). In Jerusalem Albion is shown collapsed into himself, asleep or refusing to acknowledge the world, while his body is entangled with a scroll. Albion here is literally fallen from the world of imagination, fallen into himself in despair, caught up in the limiting written word (Erdman 1974, 316). Even in the earlier works, however, Blake should not be seen as reporting history, but rather addressing the concepts that revolution brought (Makdisi 2003b, 10).


Figure 6. William Blake, Jerusalem The Emanation of The Giant Albion, copy E, object 41 (Bentley 41, Erdman 37, Keynes 41), c.1821. Relief etching with pen, watercolour and gold. 22.4 x 16.2cm. Yale Center for British Art, Yale University. Reproduced from The Blake Archive, http://www.blakearchive.org/exist/blake/archive/object.xq?objectid=jerusalem.e.illbk.41&java=no (accessed March 31, 2014).

John Ruskin considered Blake and Turner to be the two geniuses of his century (quoted in Bentley 1975, 83). It is therefore interesting to compare the two, with Blake heralding the Romantic era and Turner achieving fame at its end, with Blake a neglected artist who only found some minor following late in life while Turner achieved fame easily but was shunned in later life, with Blake maintaining the primacy of the line while Turner increasingly painted what Blake would have called in his Public Address the “blots and blurs” of nature painting (Erdman 1982, 575).

One of the outcomes of the revolutionary period was the overthrowing of hierarchical, and unbreakable, models of society. Talent and drive could now lead to advancement (Hobsbawm 1962, 189). J M W Turner (1775-1851), a Londoner like Blake, unlike Blake was a student at the Royal Academy at fourteen, became a Royal Academician in 1802, travelled widely, was famous and rapidly became rich (Knoedler 1914, 9). Yet, he too was rejected and pilloried in old age for his canvasses which redefined the romantic depiction of nature (Knoedler 1914, 10).

Turner often made use of vortices in his paintings, the forces of nature combining and swirling in an echo of the historical changes affecting society (Rodner 1986, 472). The vortex was also an important symbol for Blake and an apt metaphor for the upheavals in society (Damon 1973, 440). As Faris (1989, 310) observes, Turner depicted forces, rather than forms, confounding distinctions, something Blake would have condemned with his emphasis on form. Turner uses geometric shapes, light, and colour itself to create symbols, rather than allegory (Faris 1989, 311). For Blake, allegory was truth.

Turner, unlike Blake, found the changes the Industrial revolution was bringing as impressive, even, arguably, attaining the Romantic ideal of embodying the “sublime” (Harris 2003, 71). Nonetheless, Turner was not uncritical of the changes occurring around him and, while more enthusiastic than Blake, his art is ambivalent in its response (Rodner 1986, 455). In The slave ship, Turner depicts an infamous event of slaves being thrown overboard because the owner could then claim insurance for their loss. Like Blake’s anti-slavery stance, Turner shows human beings reduced, not just to a homogenous working (under)class, but to the very commodities that the industrial age had inaugurated (Boime 1990, 34). The old economic order had been replaced, and Turner’s canvas can be seen as embodying this (Boime 1990, 41). Slavery had ended in 1838, however, and the black hands reaching out from the painting implicitly reach for a white audience, placing the slaves as black victims requiring white assistance (Ward 2007, 49-50).


Figure 7. J M W Turner, The slave ship (slavers throwing overboard the dead and dying – typhon coming on), 1840. Oil on canvas. 138 x 91 cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Reproduced from The Athenaeum, http://www.the-athenaeum.org/art/detail.php?ID=20012(accessed March 31, 2014).

In Rain, steam and speed Turner more directly celebrates the industrial revolution, but Boime (1990, 40) sees similarities to The slave ship: the havoc and the perspective, the illumination, focus the gaze. The steam train, like the economic order, heralds an unstoppable transformation.


Figure 8. J M W Turner, Rain steam and speed, the Great Western Railway, c.1884. Oil on canvas. 121.9 x 90.8 cm. National Gallery, London, UK. Reproduced from WikiPaintings, http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/william-turner/rain-steam-and-speed-the-great-western-railway (accessed March 31, 2014).

The fighting ‘Temeraire’ became Turner’s most popular picture, but it too remains ambivalent even while it celebrates technological progress as inevitable, “almost prophetic” as Turner’s friend R C Leslie described it (Rodner 1986, 460). Unlike Blake’s resistance to industrialisation, Turner saw it as inevitable though not inherently “good” (Rodner 1986, 461). The steamer is ugly and squat in comparison to the elegance and grandeur of the sailing ship, but it is in charge, and it represents the future (Stewart 2012, 168).


Figure 9. J M W Turner, The fighting ‘Temeraire’, tugged to her last berth to be broken up, c.1839. Oil on canvas. 91 x 122 cm. National Gallery, London, UK. Reproduced from WikiPaintings, http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/william-turner/the-fighting-temeraire-tugged-to-her-last-berth-to-be-broken-up-1839 (accessed March 31, 2014).

Blake wrote in his Descriptive Catalogue that without the “bounding line” all is chaos (Erdman 1982, 550). Elsewhere, however, he also wrote “Without Contraries is no progression” (Erdman 1982, 34). While Blake might have condemned Turner’s chaos, both artists illuminate nature and ideology, and both Contraries add to each other in their meanings. Turner’s works show a tension about an already much changed society, while Blake at the onset of these changes takes a more oppositional viewpoint. Blake spoke (and painted) “the discontent of his time” (Bronowski 1965, 179). Turner, a generation later, commented critically on already well established changes. Both artists reacted to, and were driven by, the cultural, economic and political changes that were altering the world around them and both, in different ways, evinced a Romantic spirit of the artist as individual genius portraying an inner vision, of Art against Empire. This inner vision created highly individual art that not just reflected, but actively addressed and interpreted, the revolutionary age.


Reference list

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Boime, Albert. 1990. “Turner’s Slave Ship: The Victims of Empire.” Turner Studies 10 (1): 34–43.

Bronowski, Jacob. 1865. William Blake and the Age of Revolution. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Craske, Matthew. 1997. Art in Europe 1700-1830. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Damon, S Foster. 1973. A Blake Dictionary. London: Thames and Hudson.

Day, Aidan. 1996. Romanticism. London & New York: Routledge.

Erdman, David. 1974. The Illuminated Blake. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

———, ed. 1982. The Complete Poetry & Prose of William Blake. New York: Anchor Doubleday.

Faris, Wendy. 1989. “The ‘Dehumanization’ of the Arts”: J. M. W. Turner, Joseph Conrad and the Advent of Modernism.” Comparative Literature 41 (4): 305–326. ProQuest.

Frye, Northrop. 1951. “Poetry and Design in William Blake.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 10 (1): 35–42. Jstor.

Hargraves, Matthew. 2010. Varieties of Romantic Experience: British, Danish, Dutch, French, and German Drawings from the Collection of Charles Ryskamp. New Haven, Conn: Yale Center for British Art.

Harris, Roy. 2003. The Necessity of Artspeak: The Language of the Arts in the Western Tradition. London: Continuum.

Hobsbawm, Eric. 1962. The Age of Revolution: 1789-1848. New York: Vintage Books.

Hughes, Robert. 1991. Nothing If Not Critical: Selected Essays on Art and Artists. London: Harvill-Harper Collins.

Keynes, Geoffrey, ed. 1970. Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kiralis, Karl. 1956. “The Theme and Structure of William Blake’s Jerusalem.” ELH 23 (2): 127–143. Jstor.

Makdisi, Saree. 2003a. “The Political Aesthetic of Blake’s Images.” In The Cambridge Companion to William Blake, edited by Morris Eaves, 110–131. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

———. 2003b. William Blake and the Impossible History of the 1790s. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Rodner, William. 1986. “Humanity and Nature in the Steamboat Paintings of J.M.W. Turner.” Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies 18 (3): 455–474. Jstor.

Russell, Bertrand. 1961. History of Western Philosophy. London: George Allen and Unwin.

Smith, Bernard. 1988. The Death of the Artist as Hero:  Essays in History and Culture. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

Stewart, Suzanne. 2012. “Roads, Rivers, Railways and Pedestrian Rambles: The Space and Place of Travel in William Wordsworth’s Poems and J. M. W. Turner’s Paintings.” Nineteenth-Century Contexts: An Interdisciplinary Journal 34 (2): 159–184. T and F Online. doi:10.1080/08905495.2012.672296.

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Ward, Abigail. 2007. “‘Words Are All I Have Left of My  Eyes’: Blinded by the Past in  J. M. W. Turner’s Slavers Throwing  Overboard the Dead and Dying  and David Dabydeen’s ‘Turner’.” The Journal of Commonwealth Literature 42 (1): 47–58. doi:10.1177/0021989407075728.

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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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