Attempts toward Fame and Fortune: Joseph Wright of Derby and Late-Renaissance Humanism

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Joseph Wright of Derby's Corinthian Maid (Pl 1) is one of his best documented works thanks to a wealth of correspondence that survives in several archives. It is known Josiah Wedgwood and Thomas Bentley first discussed in May 1778 commissioning a painting from Wright of the story of Dibutades, her lover, and her potter father of ancient Greece--an appropriate subject for the manufacturers of classicizing pottery at the British Etruria in the industrial Midlands. Wedgwood's painting was finally completed in 1785, and during the intervening years letters circulated among Wright and his friends and patrons full of advice concerning its composition. Wedgwood expressed concern early on that depictions of refined Staffordshire ware in the painting, although good advertising, would be anachronistic: after all, Pliny the Elder had sited the story in distant antiquity, when the arts were still in their infancy. Erasmus Darwin thought that the setting of an artisan's shop in Corinth could be indicated with random, broken vases, and Brooke Boothby recommended that the youth whose shadow the maid draws should be seen resting his foot on an antique tri pod, not a vase. Benedict Nicolson included excerpts from these letters in his authoritative Joseph Wright of Derby, Painter of Light, especially the several between Wright in Derby and the poet William Hayley in Sussex. Nicolson was particularly exasperated by one letter in which Wright asks Hayley for advice on everything from the lighting of the scene to the proper facial expressions and body language of the maid. It prompted Nicolson's comment: 'There can be few examples since the Renaissance where a painter has relied so heavily on a poet for so many details in a single picture--and there are further points that Wright raises in this same letter which we have omitted simply out of fear of growing tedious.' (1) Nicolson made similar deprecating remarks about the assistance the artist received on other paintings--he clearly found Wright's method of collaborative creativity a regrettable and embarrassing aspect of his persona.

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Since the publication of Nicolson's monograph in 1968 little has been said that challenges his view of Wright as a frustratingly paradoxical figure who, despite his enormous skill and accomplishments, lacked the confidence to proceed without the help of a trusted advisor. The bulk of recent Wright scholarship has avoided this problem in focusing on the paintings from the 1760s and early 1770s, which are generally presumed to have been created with much less outside interference than the later literary paintings. Those scenes of science and industry such as the Experiment on the bird in the air pump and the blacksmith and iron-forge paintings serve the familiar and comfortable post-Romantic interpretation of Wright as the independent social analyst, the portraitist and scene-painter to the Industrial Revolution. (2) But when the period is considered as late-phase renaissance humanism, Wright emerges as a knowing participant in the enterprise of reviving and re-enacting successful past cultural orthodoxies. The humanist search for classical authority on the arts had resulted in the elaboration of the aphorism ut pictura poesis from Horace's Ars poetica into the basis of academic artistic theory. But this supposed parallel between sister arts was as much a social as an aesthetic construct: it presumed a close working alliance between poets and painters that brought distinct advantages to both. (3) Wright understood fully the machinations of mutual career-building. His close consultation with both professional and amateur literary figures and his practise of deference and observation of social hierarchies presents a model of artistic creativity and production of long-standing tradition not yet extinguished in late-18th-century Britain.

Pliny's Natural History proved to be the crucial classical text in the historiography of art. …