In 1768 the 18th-century British painter Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-97) exhibited a painting in London, “An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump,” a magnificent group-portrait reflecting Enlightenment values. While the work received favorable reviews, it failed to find a buyer; later that year Wright was snubbed by the newly founded Royal Academy.
On the advice of his friend and fellow artist Peter Perez Burdett, Wright moved north to the burgeoning port center of Liverpool. There he found scores of newly wealthy merchants who wished to cement their status by commissioning artworks. Wright lived and worked there from 1768 to 1771, making valuable connections and developing a reputation as the city’s leading portraitist. He was so successful that a rival painter accused him of “swallowing up all the business.” In his busiest year, 1769, he produced a portrait every 9 or 10 days.
An exhibition in its final weeks at the Yale Center for British Art, “Joseph Wright of Derby in Liverpool,” is the first to focus on this period of Wright’s career. The 80 works on view tell two stories: that of a young painter finding his niche, and that of a fast-growing northern city asserting itself as a cultural and economic hub.
The show is part of a two-year celebration of culture in Liverpool (the city marked the 800th anniversary of its charter last year). It was organized by the Yale Center for British Art in conjunction with the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, where it made its debut in November.
“Wright in Liverpool” has a fascinating subplot. As one of Britain’s major port cities, Liverpool was a capital of the slave trade. Many of Wright’s patrons amassed fortunes by shipping Africans across the Atlantic. The abolitionist movement was beginning to make inroads, however, and Wright made at least one painting that suggests his views on slavery were not necessarily aligned with those of his subjects.
The first gallery is filled with portraits of socially prominent Liverpudlians. Several have fanciful costumes and gestural affectations that reflect the younger generation’s tastes of the day. “Anna Ashton, Later Mrs. Thomas Case” is dressed as a shepherdess; “Fleetwood Hesketh,” in a jaunty red coat, sits cross-legged in a classical landscape.
Wright’s older patrons, the focus of the next gallery, have more gravitas. Sarah Clayton, an important land developer, rests her finger on an architectural plan of the Acropolis. Wright was a master of physical as well as intellectual flattery; he softened Clayton’s features while depicting her ruffled sleeves and black lace shawl in crisp detail.
Another remarkable painting shows Richard Gildart, the merchant and sometime mayor of Liverpool, at 95 yet not the least bit feeble-looking. The portrait is flanked by two paintings of ostentatiously accessorized young beauties: Mary Hunt, wearing a velvet ribbon choker, and an unidentified “Seated Woman” who cradles one of her pearlescent drop earrings in her left hand.
Hanging not far from several portraits of slave traders — John Tarleton, Thomas Staniforth — is a painting of a prominent abolitionist, Erasmus Darwin, the grandfather of Charles Darwin and a doctor, poet and inventor. He appears flushed, with a red and yellow complexion.
If the issue of slavery lurks in the background of Wright’s portraits, it is unavoidable in “A Conversation of Girls” (1770). In this painting three girls — two white, one black — surround an urn on a pedestal. The black girl, differentiated by her striped dress and cropped hair as well as her skin tone, kneels before the others with an offering of flowers and jewels. One of her companions, brown-haired, keeps her distance; the other, a redhead, grasps the bouquet and gives the viewer a searching look.
In a catalog essay, the scholar Sarah Parsons suggests that the painting was Wright’s way of stirring discussion on slavery without going so far as to take a position that would threaten his livelihood. Her interpretation seems plausible, but the girls’ oddly adult features — compared with contemporaneous portraits of children in the next gallery — make them seem more like figures in an allegory.
A pair of paintings featuring children at play, “Two Boys Blowing a Bladder by Candlelight” and “Two Girls Decorating a Cat by Candlelight,” contrast the amusements of young men and women. The boys, with scientific purposefulness, inflate their balloon; the mischievous-looking girls dress a horrified-looking cat in doll’s clothing.
The dramatic candlelight of the playtime scenes is typical of the paintings Wright made in Liverpool for exhibition in London. Several show bearded, robed hermit-saint figures in caves or grottoes, a prevalent theme in the 17th-century Dutch paintings and prints that were popular with Liverpool collectors. The importance of classical reproductions in the training of British artists is reinforced by early paintings and drawings depicting Italian sculptures in an academic context.
Two monumental scenes from 1771, “A Blacksmith’s Shop” (in two versions) and “The Alchymist,” round out the show. Both paintings are exhaustively heroic. The blacksmiths rush to reshoe a horse for a family traveling at night; the alchemist, in his cathedral-like laboratory, kneels in prayer upon his discovery of phosphorus. These paintings also reflect Wright’s keen interest in artificial light; in the earliest version of “A Blacksmith’s Shop,” he sandwiched gold leaf in between layers of paint.
“The Alchymist,” as the catalog suggests, can be seen as a makeover of “The Air Pump,” Wright’s early commercial failure. It romanticizes ancient science rather than modern experiments, with a figure and setting seemingly transposed from old master paintings. During four years in Liverpool, Wright established his talent for portraiture and honed his methods for conveying nocturnal illumination. He also clearly learned how to market himself.
“Joseph Wright of Derby in Liverpool” continues through Aug. 31 at the Yale Center for British Art, 1080 Chapel Street, New Haven; (203) 432-2800, ycba.yale.edu.
Image and text by The New York Times, USA