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Creator:
Joseph Wright of Derby, 1734–1797, British, active in Italy (1773–75)
Title:

Academy by Lamplight

Former Title(s):

An Academy by Lamplight [1985, Cormack, YCBA Concise Catalogue]

Date:
1769
Medium:
Oil on canvas
Dimensions:
Support (PTG): 50 x 39 3/4 inches (127 x 101 cm)
Inscription(s)/Marks/Lettering:

Label on verso, center, handwritten: “Loan | Joseph Wright | of Derby | Academy by | Lamplight”

Credit Line:
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
Copyright Status:
Public Domain
Accession Number:
B1973.1.66
Classification:
Paintings
Collection:
Paintings and Sculpture
Subject Terms:
academy | artists | Borghese Gladiator, ca. 100 BC, by Agasias of Ephesos (Greek sculptor, active ca. 100 BCE) | boy | chairs | columns (architectural elements) | costume | curtain | drawing | education | genre subject | gladiator | Hellenistic art | light | men | nymph | sculpture | shadow | shell | sketching | statue | students | woman
Access:
On view
Link:
https://collections.britishart.yale.edu/catalog/tms:4986
Export:
XML

This painting presents an imaginary art academy. A group of young male artists, representing an ideal community bound by fraternal affection, gather around a plaster cast of the Nymph with a Shell. In Wright’s day, the contemplation of art was regarded as a civilizing act, softening rough manners and unruly appetites and making the beholder a more virtuous person. Wright contrasts the refining influence of the nymph with the Borghese Gladiator statue in the background, which represents rough and aggressive masculinity. Eighteenth-century British culture was forever seeking ways to paper over the cracks within its commercial society, and Wright’s paintings frequently suggest the power of art to reconcile disparate social and political interests. Wright exhibited this picture with the Society of Artists in 1769, where it was praised warmly by the critics.

Gallery label for installation of YCBA collection, 2016



The academy students, each suggesting a different stage in the awakening of artistic genius, are gathered around a copy of the famous Hellenistic sculpture Nymph with a Shell (Louvre), which was widely known through casts and reproductions. As with The Blacksmith's Shop behind you, however, Wright grounded his subject in fact: Art students were regularly given the exercise of drawing sculpture in lamp- and candlelight. Showing the sculpture as though warmed into life by the glow of the candles, Wright pays homage to the transformative, enlivening, even magical powers of light. He may also be gently alluding to the famous classical legend of Pygmalion, King of Cyprus, who carved a statue of Venus, the goddess of love, and in so doing fell in love with it. In answer to his prayers, the goddess herself inhabited the statue, and made it come alive.

Gallery label for installation of YCBA collection, 2005
The academy students, each suggesting a different stage in the awakening of artistic genius, are gathered around a copy of the famous Hellenistic sculpture “Nymph with a Shell” (Louvre), which was widely known through casts and reproductions. But while Wright alludes to an artistic exemplum, he has also grounded his subject in fact. Art students were regularly given the exercise of drawing sculpture in lamplight and candlelight. Showing the sculpture as though warmed into life by the glow of the candles, Wright pays homage to the transformative, enlivening, even magical powers of light. He may also be gently alluding to the famous classical legend of Pygmalion, King of Cyprus, who carved a statue of Venus, the goddess of love, and in so doing fell in love with it. In answer to his prayers, the goddess herself inhabited the statue and made it come alive.

Somewhat more prosaically, it has recently been shown that this painting and its companion, Philosopher by Lamplight (Derby Museum and Art Gallery), which Wright exhibited with the Society of Artists at Spring Gardens in May and early June 1769, offered a terse commentary upon the recent establishment of the Royal Academy under the presidency of Sir Joshua Reynolds. In the context of contemporaneous art-world politics, the Philosopher by Lamplight was “at once both a learned reworking of Salvator Rosa for the connoisseurs, and perhaps also a fitting warning to the new RAs about the transience of earthly glory,” while the Academy formed a kind of “critique of the hierarachical structure of the new RA by contrasting it with an ideal democratic school with clear allusions to the now defunct St. Martin's Lane Academy” (Hargraves, 2005, p. 97).

John Baskett, Paul Mellon's legacy: a passion for British art : masterpieces from the Yale Center for British Art, , Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 2007, cat. no. 41, N5220 M552 P38 2007 OVERSIZE (YCBA)



Joseph Wright's shadowy Academy by Lamplight was first exhibited at the Society of Artists in 1769, four years after his public debut at that institution's annual exhibition. From the outset of his career, Wright's name and reputation had been closely associated with the tenebrist style, one indebted to seventeenth-century artists influenced by Caravaggio and Rembrandt. From 1765 until the exhibition of this picture, he exhibited paintings featuring scenes spectacularly illuminated by the glow of candlelight. As early as 1767 a critic noted, "Mr Wright of Derby's Candlelights, have always been admired," and in 1768 another announced him "a very great and uncommon genius."

Among his young academicians in this painting Wright shows us the different faces of the aspiring artist. While a few serious draftsmen carefully transcribe onto their paper the object before them, diligently perfecting their drawings, a genius (or one who thinks himself such), portfolio snapped shut and clutched to his breast, receives his inspiration from the touch of the sculpture and the light beaming on his forehead. In the shadows at the right, playful pupils-still too young to appreciate the delights of the craft-divert their attention from the statue and, with their inviting gazes, encourage the viewer to partake of the scene. At the left a besotted student has abandoned his drawing tools and fairly swoons at the beauty of the shadows cast by the sculpted nymph.

In this exploration of the awakening of artistic genius, Wright exploits the Pygmalion theme, a subject particularly popular at mid-century. The statue, warmed by the yellow candlelight, glows in the deep shadows as if she will soon rise and leave her plinth. The colorless "genius" averts his eyes from the sculpture in order to draw his inspiration from it, and seems himself stone-like, fixed in his thought, immobile in his gestural grandiloquence. By contrast, the young, adoring artist stares intently-even longingly-at the beautiful maiden and is, like her, warmed by the glow of the hidden candle. These two are linked through their poses, echoing the curve of the arch above them. Intriguing though the narrative may be, the picture's subject remains nonetheless the transformative and enlivening power of light.

Wright's painting also illuminates our understanding of the instruction of young artists in the mid-eighteenth century. Students spent good portions of the early years of their training making copies of well-known and admired statues, usually plaster casts or copies of antique Roman or Greek statues. Here the sculpture at the center of the composition is a copy of the famed Hellenistic Nymph with a Shell (Louvre); a full-size copy of the Gladiator (one of the most famous sculptures to have survived from Antiquity, a smaller-scale cast of which had been the subject of the artist's first exhibited picture in 1765) can also be glimpsed in the shadows at the right. Art students frequently made drawings from sculptures by candlelight; in one gallery, for instance, "lamps were placed to form the happiest contrast of light and shade, and the improved effect of the marble amounted by this almost to animation…To a mind replete with classical imagery the illusion was perfect."3 It was long speculated that Wright's painting depicted an actual spot in the sculpture gallery at Richmond House in Whitehall, opened by its owner the Duke of Richmond for the benefit of art students in 1758. Yet, Wright's image belongs not to a specific locale or incident but rather is an imagined scene.

Julia Marciari-Alexander, This other Eden, paintings from the Yale Center for British Art , Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 1998, pp. 58-9, no. 17, ND1314.3 Y36 1998 (YCBA)

Academy by Lamplight, Gazette Des Beaux-Arts, vol. 81, January 1973, sup. 22, N2 G3 OVERSIZE (HAAS)

Academy by Lamplight, Domus, no. 516, November 1972, p. 50, N4 D6 OVERSIZE (HAAS)

Arts Council of Great Britain, The age of neo-classicism : the 14th exhibition of the council of Europe, Royal Academy & UIA : 9 September - 19 November 1972, London, 1972, p. 180, no. 282, pl. 34, NX452.5 N4 A33 (YCBA)

Elizabeth E. Barker, George Romney's Early Candlelight Pictures, Transactions of the Romney Society, vol. 5, 2000, p. 32, NJ18 R65 T7 2000 (YCBA)

Elizabeth E. Barker, Joseph Wright of Derby in Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool New Haven, 2007, pp. 50-2, 66-7,, cat. 31, NJ18 W95 B36 2007 + (YCBA)

John Baskett, Paul Mellon's Legacy: a Passion for British Art: Masterpieces from the Yale Center for British Art, , Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 2007, p. 260, no. 41, N5220 M552 P38 2007 OVERSIZE (YCBA)

David Bindman, The History of British Art, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 2008, pp. 198-99 (v.2), fig. 127, N6761 +H57 2008 Oversize (YCBA)

Albert Boime, Art in an age of revolution, 1750-1800, v. 1, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1987, p. 235, N6425 N4 B65 1987 (YCBA)

Joseph Burke, The Iconography of the Enlightenment in English Art, Sydney University Press for the Australian Academy of the Humanities, 1970, p. 14, N6766 B87

Malcolm Cormack, A Concise Catalogue of Paintings in the Yale Center for British Art, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 1985, pp. 260-261, N590.2

Malcolm Cormack, A Concise Catalogue of Paintings in the Yale Center for British Art, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 1985, pp. 260-261, N590.2 A83 (YCBA)

Matthew Craske, Joseph Wright of Derby : Painter of darkness, The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, New Haven, pp. 98-100, fig. 55, NJ18.W95 C72 2020+ (YCBA)

David A. Cross, George Romney : Patterns of Friendship, Transactions of the Romney Society, vol. 1, 1996, p. 20, NJ18 R65 T7 2000 (YCBA)

Jean-Pierre Cuzin, D'après l'antique, Paris, Musée du Louvre, 16 octobre 2000-15 janvier 2001 , Réunion des Musées Nationaux, Paris, 2000, no. 153, N7432.5.C6 D37 2000 (Haas)

Judy Egerton, Joseph Wright of Derby, 1734-1797, Londres, Tate Gallery, 7 fâevrier-22 avril 1990 ; Paris, Galeries nationales du Grand Palais, 17 mai-23 juillet 1990 ; New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 6 septembre-2 dâecembre 1990 , Réunion des Musées Nationaux, Paris, 1990, pp. 52-4, no. 12, NJ18 W95 +E5414 1990 Oversize (YCBA)

Judy Egerton, Wright of Derby, Tate Publishing, London, 1990, pp. 63-64, no. 23, no. 23, NJ18 W95 +E54 1990 Oversize (YCBA)

Catherine M. Gordon, British paintings Hogarth to Turner, Frederick Warne, London, 1981, p. 78, ND466 G67 (YCBA)

Martha Hamilton-Phillips, Joseph Wright of Derby in Liverpool, (Book Review) , Eighteenth Century Life, vol. 24, Baltimore, MD, Spring 2010, p. 110, 18 Ei44L v. 34 (LEWIS WALPOLE)

Matthew Hargraves, 'Candidates for fame', the Society of Artists of Great Britain, 1760-1791 , The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, New Haven, CT, 2005, p. 97, N12 S637 H37 2005 (YCBA)

Matthew Hargraves, Joseph Wright of Derby and the Society of Artists of Great Britain, British Art Journal, Vol. 11, no. 1, 2010 (Spring), pp. 56, 59, Pl. 4, N6761 B74 OVERSIZE (YCBA) Also available on line (ORBIS)

Francis Haskell, The Most beautiful statues, the taste for antique sculpture 1500-1900 : an exhibition held at the Ashmolean Museum from 26 March to 10 May 1981 , Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, 1981, p. 29, NB85 M67 (YCBA)

Joseph Wright of Derby An Academy by Lamplight, Sotheby's, London, p. 5, p. 6, p. 8 (detail), p. 10-11, p. 15, p. 21, V 2763 (YCBA)

Joseph Wright of Derby in Liverpool, May 22 - August 31, 2008. , Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 2008, p. 8, V 2193 (YCBA)

Julia Marciari-Alexander, This other Eden, paintings from the Yale Center for British Art , Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 1998, pp. 58-9, no. 17, ND1314.3 Y36 1998 (YCBA)

Benedict Nicolson, Joseph Wright of Derby : Painter of Light, Paul Mellon Foundation for British Art, London, New York, 1968, pp. 234 (v. 1), lot 189, pl. 60, NJ18 W95 +N53 Oversize (YCBA)

Ellwood Parry, Some Distant Relatives and American Cousins of Thomas Eakins' Children at Play, American Art Journal, vol. 18, Winter 1986, pp. 23-4, fig. 3, Avaialble online through JSTOR N8595 A618 (HAAS)

Paul Mellon's Legacy, a passion for British art. [large print labels] , Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 2007, v. 3, N5220 M552 +P381 2007, Mellon Shelf (YCBA)

Ronald Paulson, Breaking and remaking, aesthetic practice in England, 1700-1820 , Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, 1989, p. 225, no. 26, BH221 G72 P38 1989 (YCBA)

Ronald Paulson, Hogarth's harlot, sacred parody in Enlightenment England , Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Md., 2003, pp. 145, 160-1, fig. 39, BR758 P38 2003 (YCBA)

Ronald Paulson, The beautiful, novel, and strange, aesthetics and heterodoxy , Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1996, pp. 93, 298, PR858 A74 P38 1996 (YCBA)

J. H. Plumb, The pursuit of happiness : a view of life in Georgian England : an exhibition selected from the Paul Mellon collection, , Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, 1977, pp. 20, 48, 102, no. 80, N6766 Y34 1977 (YCBA)

Martin Postle, Joseph Wright of Derby, Liverpool and New Haven , Burlington Magazine, The Burlington Magazine Publications Ltd., April 2008, p. 278, N1 B87 150:2 OVERSIZE (YCBA)

Society of Artists of Great Britain, A catalogue of the pictures, sculptures, designs in architecture, models, drawings, prints, &c. exhibited at the great room in Spring-Garden, Charing-Cross, May the First, 1769, by the Society of Artists of Great-Britain, the Tenth Year of Exhibiting , William Bunce, 1769, p. 13, no. 197, N5055 S6 C3 v. 1 (RARE BOOKS, YCBA) Also Available Online (18th Century Collections Online - Gale)

David H. Solkin, Joseph Wright of Derby and the Sublime Art of Labor, Representations, vol. 83, Summer 2003, pp. 167, 192 n.3, NX1 R46 (SML) Available online in JStor. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/rep.2003.83.1.167

David H. Solkin, Painting for money, the visual arts and the public sphere in eighteenth-century England , The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, New Haven, 1993, pp. 239-246, no. 80, N5205.7 G7 S65 1993 (YCBA)

Nadia Tscherny, George Romney : Flaxman modelling the bust of Hayley, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, 1985 ?, p. 7, no. 16, V 0101 (YCBA)

William Vaughan, British painting, the Golden Age from Hogarth to Turner , Thames and Hudson, London, 1999, p. 104, no. 64, ND466 V28 1999 (YCBA)

Giles Waterfield, Mr Mellon, RA : the magazine for the Friends of the Royal Academy, No. 96, Autumn 2007, p. 71, V 1905 (YCBA) Detached from RA, no.96 (2007:Autumn)


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