Candlelight Compositions

William Pether (ca. 1738-1821), after a painting by Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797), The Philosopher Reading a Lecture on the Orrery, 1768. Mezzotint. Graphic Arts GA 2005.01523

British painter Joseph Wright of Derby is best known for two oil paintings, A Philosopher Giving a Lecture on the Orrery in which a Lamp is put in Place of the Sun (ca. 1764-1766) and Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768). Each employs a strong, realistic light source to produce a dramatic scene with heightened areas of light and shadow; the age of enlightenment made visible. These scenes of bright whites and rich blacks were nicknamed candlelight compositions and their popularity was amplified when large-scale mezzotint reproductions were printed and sold.

We call the artist Wright of Derby to distinguish him from artists Richard Wright (1735-ca. 1775) and Joseph Wright (1756-1793), also exhibiting around the same period. Wright of Derby’s Philosopher (Art Gallery at Derby, Derbyshire, England) presents a lecture on the movement of the planets around the sun, using a mechanical model called an orrery. The figures may represent the collector who bought the painting, Washington Shirley, 5th Earl Ferrers, along with his friends and family. The lecturer is reminiscent of Isaac Newton, whose theories on the movement of the planets and universal gravitation were published in 1687. There is a portrait of Newton by Godfrey Kneller that may have been the inspiration for this figure (

Graphic Arts’ impression of this print, along with an orrery, will be on view in the Milberg Gallery beginning February 7 in the exhibition: Envisioning the World.

For more information, see Elizabeth E. Barker, “New Light on The Orrery: Joseph Wright and the Representation of Astronomy in 18th-century Britain,” British Art Journal 1, no. 2 (Spring 2000): 29-37.