Bridge through a Cavern, Moonlight (1791)

Image: Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797), Oil on Canvas.

Image from: Derby Museum & Art Gallery

Wright visited Naples in 1774 and discovered dramatic scenery in the caverns and grottoes on the sea-shore. The places he saw seem to have influenced several of his later landscapes, not just those devoted to Italian subjects.

In Bridge through a Cavern, Moonlight, the bridge bisects the space between the dark, confined interior of the coastal cavern and the illuminated expanse of sea, sky and clouds beyond. At the same time it frames the reflected light of the full moon, which plays upon the ripples linking the sea outside and the shadowy pool within the cavern.

Landscape with a Rainbow (1794) and Rydal Waterfall (1795) represent English scenes, but are similar in composition and subject matter to Bridge through a Cavern, Moonlight. 

A View of Tivoli (c1783-86)

Image: Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797). Oil on canvas.

Image from: Derby Museum & Art Gallery

Wright was deeply attracted by the Italian landscape. In a letter to his sister Nancy, from Rome, dated 22 May 1774, he wrote: “The natural scenes are beautiful and uncommon, with an atmosphere so pure and clear, that objects twenty miles distant seem not half the way.”

Some ten years later, after his return to England, Wright created one of his great landscapes, A View of Tivoli. Tivoli is outside Rome and the painting shows a breathtaking view of the Italian countryside illuminated by the sun. The sunlight plays across an expanse of scenery, lighting hills and mountains in the distance, and the river, rocks and foliage in the foreground. Wright paints Tivoli as an insignificant silhouette within a landscape which celebrates awesome natural beauty.

Virgil’s Tomb (1782)

Image: Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797). Oil on canvas.

Image from: Derby Museum & Art Gallery

Virgil was a famous Roman poet who died in 19 BC. His tomb was located in the hills near Naples and it formed part of the journey for Europeans engaged on a tour of classical remains in the region. Wright probably visited it during his stay in Naples in autumn 1774. Between 1778 and 1785 he painted seven views of the subject. Most show the tomb at midnight.

The painting shows the tomb overgrown and in a ruinous state. A full moon illuminates the scene in a cloudy sky and the fall of light emphasises the dark, forbidding atmosphere of the tomb and its surroundings.

Eruption of Mount Vesuvius (1774)

Image Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797). Gouache on paper

Image from: Derby Museum & Art Gallery

Mount Vesuvius held a special attraction for Wright. He painted it over thirty times and during his Italian tour he created several pen and ink and chalk studies. This painting in gouache (watercolour with the addition of white to add body) is one of Wright’s most striking images. Set against a deep-blue sky, flames illuminate and fumes darken the volcanic landscape. Streams of lava erupt from the mountain’s cone and cascade down its desolate slopes of to form a river of molten fire. There can be few more powerful visions of the forces contained within the earth.
Joseph Wright was an eyewitness to the mountain’s volcanic eruption and wrote excitedly to his brother:
“When you see Whitehurst, tell him I wished for his company when on Mount Vesuvius; his thoughts would have center’d in the bowels of the mountain, mine skimmed on the surface only; there was a very considerable eruption at the time, of which I am going to make a picture. ‘Tis the most wonderful site in nature.” 5
Wright was a long-standing friend of the Lunar Society figure, John Whitehurst who was also a native of Derby. He painted Whitehurst in the early 1790s and included Vesuvius in the background to represent the latter’s geological interests. In 1778 Whitehurst published, An Inquiry into the Original State and Formation of the Earth.
A volcano and mountainous terrain also appear in Wright’s painting The Widow of an Indian Chief watching the Arms of her deceased Husband (1785). They resemble the drawings of Vesuvius and its adjacent landscape, which he composed in 1774. They are held at Derby Museum & Art Gallery.

5 Quoted in Derby Art Gallery, Joseph Wright of Derby (Derby Museums & Art Gallery, 1979), p 6.

A Letter from the Artist in Rome, including Sketches of the Castel Sant’ Angelo and Saint Peter’s (1774)

Image: Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797). Pencil, pen and ink and coloured washes on paper.

Image from: Derby Museum & Art Gallery

This sketch includes the Castel Sant’ Angelo on one side of the paper and Saint Peter’s on the other side. A letter from Wright to an unknown individual is also written on the paper. The recipient is possibly the Rev Thomas Gisborne, an artist friend of Wright who appears to be acting on the latter’s behalf to sell one of his paintings.

Fire in Rome (1774)

Image: Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797). Pen and wash on toned yellow paper.

Image from: Derby Museum & Art Gallery

Originally called Fire in Rome, this image is probably one of Wright’s drawings of the Girandola firework displays. The content of the image closely resembles Girandola from the Castel Sant’ Angelo (1774). From a distance the fireworks would resemble a fire. The vantage point is a high point, close to the place where Wright stayed on the Trinita de Monti.

Girandola with St Peter’s Rome (1774/5)

Image: Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797). Sepia wash with brown ink.

Image from: Derby Museum & Art Gallery

This sketch is part of a series painted by Joseph Wright during the Girandola at the Castel Sant’Angelo by the River Tiber. It was a major fireworks display, so called because of the huge revolving wheel from which rockets were fired. It was held three times a year at Easter and during the festivals of St Peter and St Paul in June. Wright was in Italy at the time of an extra Girandola in February 1775, to commemorate the installation on Pius IV as Pope.

Belisarius receiving Alms (1775)

Image: Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797), Pen, ink and brown wash over pencil.

Image from: Derby Museum & Art Gallery

This drawing of a classical subject from late Roman history was completed in 1775 four months before Wright left Rome. By then, his celebration of all things classical had been tempered by his visit to the archaeological museum in Naples and the deepening of his experience through his discovery of the Italian landscape.

Belisarius was a general in the army of the Roman Emperor Justinian. He was a victim of court intrigue which led to his disgrace and loss of office. Belisarius was blinded and forced to beg for a living. In the late 18th century he was the hero of a popular novel written by Marmontel in 1766.

Wright’s drawing reflects his interest in Roman themes, but it also reveals a contemplative theme in his art, the ephemeral nature of worldly achievement, wealth, reputation and happiness. This is represented in several of his major paintings, A Philosopher by Lamplight (1769), Mirovan Breaking Open the Tomb of his Ancestors(1772), Maria and her Dog, Silvio (1781), Jedediah Strutt (1790) and Romeo and Juliet(1790). Several of these are paintings of literary subjects; Belisarius receiving Alms was an early example of this genre.

Study of Fragment of a Classical Frieze, Rome (1774)

Image: Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797), Pencil, pen and grey ink and grey wash.

Image from: Derby Museum & Art Gallery

The Study of Fragment of a Classical Frieze, Rome, carefully records the decorative features of the masonry and the play of light and shade on the object. It is probably a piece of the Ara Pacis Augusta.

Wright was profoundly influenced by the legacy of classical antiquity. Like many of his contemporaries, he saw Greek and Roman civilisation as the embodiment of a way of life which was superior artistically, ethically and physically to the present. His visit to Italy from 1773 to 1775 gave him the raw materials to solidify his theoretical knowledge. He produced several architectural studies of decaying ruins and was fascinated by ancient statues and the fragments of masonry. During his recovery from a bout of sickness, he wrote to his sister, Nancy, on 22 May 2004:

“This climate is certainly very salutary, and would, I think, perfectly restore me, was not my attention and application continually engaged with the amazing and stupendous remains of antiquity; and so numerous are they, so each one can scare move a foot but the relics of stupendous works represent themselves. When I consider the immense size of the whole, and the beauty of the parts, I can not help reflecting how trifling and insignificant are the present operations of mankind; we are no better than infants, and ought to wear daiding strings. I have no time to enter into particular detail of the fine things the country abounds with; let it suffice to tell you, at present, that the artist finds here whatever may facilitate and improve his studies. The antique remains of art, as I said before, are wonderful.” 1

Wright’s observations influenced how he saw the world. A later visit to Naples’ archaeological museum, led him to recognise that ancient civilisation was not necessary superior to that of the present day.

“Glad I am to find from the observations I have made in these places, that the present age is not so degenerated, either in size of morals as some would imagine. The skulls of the old Romans were the size of the present, and from the Chirurgical (surgical) instruments which are in the Museum, they were liable to the same disorders, indeed there is no doubt but Nature was always the same and will be so ad infinitum.” 2

Whilst in Italy, Wright produced many studies of the classical sites and objects he saw. In Derby Museum & Art Gallery alone, there are forty-six individual examples, which illuminate his approach to the antique and reveal his abilities as a draughtsman. After his visit to Italy, Wright’s paintings do not, as one might have expected, replicate his initial fascination with ancient art and architecture. Instead they reflect his growing interest in the world of nature – land, water, sky, moonlight, fire and volcanic eruptions – which the trip stimulated.

1 Quoted in Joseph Wright of Derby Information Pack (Derby Museum & Art Gallery, 2002), p 18.

2 Quoted in Derby Art Gallery, Joseph Wright of Derby (Derby Museums & Art Gallery, 1979), p 6.

Joseph Wright’s Journey to Italy

Image: Joseph Wright of Derby (1734- 1797), Self Portrait (c1767-70). Charcoal on paper.

Image from: Derby Museum & Art Gallery

In 1773 Joseph Wright was 39 years old and an established artist. He had tried, without a great deal of success to establish himself as a portraitist and had painted images of experimental and industrial activity, including, A Philosopher lecturing on the Orrery (1766in 1766 and An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump (1768). He wanted to broaden his knowledge and experience and like many of his contemporaries, he sailed to Italy to learn from the art and architecture of classical Rome and the artists of the Italian Renaissance.

On 1 November 1773, he left England with his wife Hannah or Anne, another painter, John Downman and his pupil, Richard Hurleston. The party was joined by another artist, the sculptor James Paine later. Wright’s “grand tour” included Naples, Florence, Bologna, Venice and Turin as well as Rome and he did more than draw ancient monuments or copy frescoes by Michelangelo. Wright was fascinated by the Italian coastal scenery of coves and caves, the cascades of light produced by fireworks and the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and created many drawings of what he saw. His observations influenced his oil paintings when he returned to England in 1775.

Wright expanded his knowledge, developed his skills and extended his artistic vision. He was not only an English painter who painted portraits and the science and industry of the Midlands Enlightenment, he was an artist who absorbed and refracted the varied traditions, cultures, ideas and landscapes he observed. During and after his visit to Italy, Wright developed in new ways, partly as a painter of literary subjects, but most importantly as a landscape artist.

Joseph Wright of Derby and his Visit to Italy 1773 – 1775

Image: Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797), Eruption of Mount Vesuvius (1774). Gouache on paper.

Image from: Derby Museum & Art Gallery

Text: Malcolm Dick


Joseph Wright left for Italy in 1773. Over the next two years he travelled throughout the country, observing, drawing and writing letters to his family and friends in England. Wright was interested in the artistic and architectural remains of ancient Rome and the Renaissance. He recorded his observations in pen and ink and chalk drawings, but more importantly in the long term, he drew the places he visited. They included Rome itself and Italian landscapes and coastal scenes, particularly around Naples. Some of his most dramatic images included his views of Mount Vesuvius, including the volcanic eruption which heads this exhibition.

Wright’s Italian experience helped him to develop as an artist. This exhibition presents and explores a selection of images he created during his time in the country and paintings of Italian landscapes he created after his return to England.