The Scientist Artist

English artist Joseph Wright of Derby (1734 – 1797) was the scientist artist, a master of chiaroscoru – of capturing candlelit nocturnal scenes of fascinating science experiments, a master at capturing the varied human reactions to these experiments. At the same time, his paintings tell us he is an enlightened thinker, a philosopher who is questioning the morality of these experiments, the wisdom in tampering with nature, and in interfering with God’s will.

In An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768), he captures the essence of childhood wonder, the passions of youth, and the wisdom of age in the motley group of people that that are viewing the experiment. But for the rudimentary scientific experiment, this could be happening today – and the human element of the painting would remain unchanged – which I think is what makes Joseph Wright of Derby’s work so timeless.

A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery (1763 -65), The Alchemist Discovering Phosphorus (1771), and The Iron Forge (1772) (clockwise). In addition to showing the artist’s mastery with the use of chiaroscuro or candlelit effect, they stand as a record of the scientific progress being made in the Age of Enlightenment.

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