Your soul is a select landscape
Where charming masqueraders and
Playing the lute and dancing and almost
Sad beneath their fantastic disguises.
All sing in a minor key
Of victorious love and the opportune life,
They do not seem to believe in their happiness
And their song mingles with the moonlight,
With the still moonlight, sad and beautiful,
That sets the birds dreaming in the trees
And the fountains sobbing in ecstasy,
The tall slender fountains among marble statues.
Paul Verlaine, 1869
(Top image: Arkhip Kuindzhi Ivanovich, Moonlit Night on the Dneiper, 1882)(Images Courtesy: The State Tretyakov Gallery, Allen Memorial Art Museum, Ohio)
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.