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Joseph Wright of Derby, 1734–1797

Matlock Tor by Moonlight

Former Title(s):

Matlock Tor [1985, Cormack, YCBA Concise Catalogue]

Matlock Tor, moonlight

between 1777 and 1780
Oil on canvas
25 × 30 inches (63.5 × 76.2 cm), Frame: 32 3/4 × 37 1/2 inches (83.2 × 95.3 cm)
Credit Line:
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
Copyright Status:
Public Domain
Accession Number:
Paintings and Sculpture
Subject Terms:
cliff | clouds | genre subject | hills | horse (animal) | landscape | light | man | moon | night | reflection | river | waterfall
Associated Places:
Derbyshire | Derwent | England | Matlock | United Kingdom
Not on view
IIIF Manifest:

Joseph Wright of Derby returned from his period of study in Italy (1773–75) with a new appreciation of landscape, both that of Italy, which he continued to make his subject for the rest of his life, and that of Britain, particularly his native Derbyshire. This painting is one of Wright’s earliest pictorial explorations of the dramatic landscape of his home county. Like so many of his paintings, it focuses on the meticulous observation of a particular effect of light.

Gallery label for installation of YCBA collection, 2016
I find myself continually stealing off, and getting to Landscapes.
Joseph Wright, 31 December 1792 [1]

This painting is one of Wright's earliest pictorial explorations of the Derbyshire landscape. Before his two-year sojourn in Italy, the artist had shown little interest in landscape painting other than as a backdrop to his portraits and subject pictures. The majestic beauty of Rome and Naples, however, seems to have aroused his sensibilities to the potential of landscape as a pictorial subject in itself.
Most of his first landscapes were painted after his return to England in 1775 but were based on the sketches he had made in Italy. These showed either fantastic views of spectacular ?reworks taking place in the night sky above famous Roman monuments on the Tiber, or dramatic representations of nighttime eruptions of the then-active volcano Mount Vesuvius, outside Naples. Matlock Tor by Moonlight marks a return to Wright's native Derbyshire, but his focus in this night landscape remains the stirring power of light on his subject.
His exploration of the effect of a full moon on Matlock Tor (known locally as such to differentiate it from Matlock High Tor) and the River Derwent lends to the picture an eerie, almost overwhelming atmosphere, one in which the mountain and river seem to awaken from a heavy slumber. He describes the heavy vegetation on the Tor with thick impasto dotted onto smooth, translucent areas of paint; the surfaces of the mountain seem to sparkle and come alive in the shadowy moonlight. Similarly, the gently rolling water of the Derwent, whose lapping waves have created the mammoth mountain beside it, seems to gain strength in the cold rays of the bright moon. Although heightening the awesome qualities of his landscape by including a small horse and rider who wonder and cower before the moon, clouds, and mountain, Wright paints an image in which the overall atmosphere is not one of foreboding evil but of cool, powerful silence.
Painted early in his career as a landscapist, this picture, along with a nearly identical version (Detroit Institute of Arts), stands at a transitional point in Wright's work. In these two versions of the same subject, he remains largely faithful to his own painterly idiom-relying on dramatic chiaroscuro effects to enliven his subjects, and painting with a sharpness of touch and tonal contrast that implies direct, almost scientific observation of the scene. Yet in the present painting Wright has toned down the spectacle. The quiet atmosphere hints at his imminent shift from the awe-inspiring, powerful mode of the Sublime so evident in his volcanic views of Italy to the lighter, brighter colors and lyrical tonalities of the Picturesque that he would use in his later English landscapes.

[1] Egerton 1990, 11.

Julia Marciari-Alexander

Julia Marciari-Alexander, This other Eden, paintings from the Yale Center for British Art, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 1998, p. 84, no. 29, ND1314.3 Y36 1998 (YCBA)

Rachel Rose (Gladstone Gallery, 2022-01-14 - 2022-03-01) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

The Critique of Reason : Romantic Art, 1760–1860 (Yale University Art Gallery, 2015-03-06 - 2015-07-26) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

Art in Focus : Joseph Wright and the Spectacle of Science (Yale Center for British Art, 2007-03-30 - 2007-06-11) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

This Other Eden : British Paintings from the Paul Mellon Collection at Yale (Art Gallery of South Australia, 1998-09-16 - 1998-11-15) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

This Other Eden : British Paintings from the Paul Mellon Collection at Yale (Queensland Art Gallery, 1998-07-15 - 1998-09-06) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

This Other Eden : British Paintings from the Paul Mellon Collection at Yale (Art Gallery of New South Wales, 1998-05-01 - 1998-07-05) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

Gentle, Rural and Sublime - English Landscape Paintings and Watercolors, 1750-1850 (Denver Art Museum, 1993-12-11 - 1994-02-06) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

Fairest Isle - The Appreciation of British Scenery 1750-1850 (Yale Center for British Art, 1989-04-12 - 1989-06-25) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

Painting in England 1700-1850 - From The Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon (Yale University Art Gallery, 1965-04-15 - 1965-06-20) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

David Ainley, Blinded by Spectacle, Disregard for Human Labour in a Landscape of Joseph Wright of Derby, and a Painter's Respnse folloiwng modernism , Digital and Material Arts Research Centre, University of Derby, January 12, 2012, p. 6, Available online http://hdl.handle.net/10545/621637

Katharine Baetjer, Glorious nature, British landscape painting, 1750-1850 , Zwemmer publisher, London, 1993, pp. 21, 124-25, no. 20, ND1354.4 B34 1993 (YCBA) [YCBA]

John Baskett, Painting in England: 1700-1850: the Collection of English paintings formed by Mr and Mrs Paul Mellon : on Exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, until August 18th, , Connoisseur, Vol. 153, London, June 1963, p. 101, N1 C75 + (YCBA) [YCBA]

William Bemrose, Wright of Derby, a Biographical Notice, Reliquary, vol. 4, April 1864, p. 212, By2 945 (LSF) Copy of article in file. Also available online in British Periodicals database. [ORBIS]

Charles Edward Buckley, English Landscape by Joseph Wright of Derby, Art Quarterly, v. 18, 1955, pp. 264-71, J10 Ar81 + (LSF) [ORBIS]

Malcolm Cormack, Concise Catalogue of Paintings in the Yale Center for British Art, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 1985, pp. 262-263, N590.2 A83 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Matthew Craske, Joseph Wright of Derby : Painter of darkness, The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, New Haven, pp. vi-vii, fig. 1, NJ18.W95 C72 2020+ (YCBA) [YCBA]

Megan Cullen, Fairest isle : the appreciation of British scenery, 1750-1850 : [exhibition] label copy. Yale Center for British Art, April 12-June 25, 1989., , Yale Center for British Art, [New Haven, 1989, p. 54, no. 125, ND1354.4 F351 1989 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Stephen Daniels, Joseph Wright, Tate Publishing, London, 1999, pp.68-69, no. 56, NJ18 W95 D25 1999 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Judy Egerton, Wright of Derby, Tate Publishing, London, 1990, p. 184, NJ18 W95 +E54 1990 Oversize (YCBA) [YCBA]

Exhibition at Durlacher Gallery, Arts Magazine, vol. 34, April 1960, p. 54, N1 A415 OVERSIZE (HAAS) [ORBIS]

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

Andrew Graciano, "The Book of Nature is Open to All Men", eology, Mining, and History in Joseph Wright's Derbyshire Landscapes , Huntington Library Quarterly, vol. 68, University of California Press, December 2005, p. 590, Z783 S25 H45 68 SERIALS (YCBA) [YCBA]

Luke Herrmann, British landscape painting of the eighteenth century., Faber & Faber, London, 1973, p.90, ND1354.4 H47 1973 + (YCBA) [YCBA]

Luke Herrmann, The Paul Mellon Collection at Burlington House, Connoisseur, vol. 157, December 1964, pp. 218, 219, fig. 11, N1 C75 + OVERSIZE (YCBA) [YCBA]

Ian S. Hodkinson, An 18th century artist-applied lining, Joseph Wright of Derby's "Cut through the Rock at Cromford" , American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, vol. 34, Spring 1995, pp. 35-26, Available online at JSTOR http://www.jstor.org/stable/3179434 [Website]

Llewellynn Jewitt, Wright of Derby, Art Journal, vol. 60, December 1866, pp. 377-378, J10 Ar74 + (LSF) [ORBIS]

Julia Marciari-Alexander, This other Eden : Paintings from the Yale Center for British Art, , Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 1998, pp.84-85, no. 29, ND1314.3 Y36 1998 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Painting in England 1700-1850 : collection of Mr. & Mrs. Paul Mellon : Exhibition at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, , 1,2, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, VA, 1963, pp. 56 (v.1)..., no. 38, pl. 223, ND466 V57 v.1-2 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Painting in England 1700-1850 from the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, The Royal Academy of Arts Winter Exhibition 1964-65., , Royal Academy of Arts, London, UK, 1964, p. 12 (v.1), no. 36, ND466 R68 1964/65 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Paul Mellon's Legacy : a passion for British art [large print labels], , Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 2007, v. 1, N5220 M552 P381 2007 OVERSIZE (YCBA) [YCBA]

Duncan Robinson, Fairest isle : the appreciation of British scenery, 1750-1850, , Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, 1989, p. 16, no. 125, ND1354.4 F35 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Robert Rosenblum, Wright of Derby: Gothick Realist, ART News, vol. 59, March 1960, pp. 24-7, N1 A6 OVERSIZE (HAAS) [ORBIS]

Yale University Art Gallery, Painting in England, 1700-1850, from the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon : [exhibition at] Yale University Art Gallery, April 15-June 20, 1965, , vol. 1, W. Clowes and sons, New Haven, 1965, p. 63 (v. 1), no. 232, ND466 Y35 (YCBA) [YCBA]

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