Joseph Wright of Derby in Liverpool

Thursday, May 22, 2008
Sunday, August 31, 2008

Joseph Wright of Derby (1734–1797) is one of the most significant and admired British artists of the eighteenth century. Prized by his contemporaries for the originality of his “candlelight” paintings, Wright was also a distinguished portraitist. From 1768 to 1771 he lived and worked in Liverpool, then Britain’s fastest-growing port and a burgeoning cultural and economic center. Joseph Wright of Derby in Liverpool was the first major exhibition to focus on Wright’s creative development in that important provincial artistic center.

The exhibition also provided a look at the city during a period of economic expansion and political change. Wright’s arrival in Liverpool marked a turning point in the development of the artistic culture of the metropolis—a true “Dawn of Taste.” At the time, Liverpool was characterized by its extraordinarily mobile population, its commercial expansion, and its uneasy involvement with the slave trade, which made many of its merchants’ fortunes. Wright’s highly realistic style was well suited to this environment, and demand for his portraits led him to complete one, on average, every ten days. Wright’s success in Liverpool made him the first great British artist to establish a career largely outside London.

The exhibition featured approximately eighty-five works of art, including nearly fifty paintings and drawings by Wright, as well as works by his circle of friends and pupils in the city.

Joseph Wright of Derby, The Blacksmith's Shop (detail), 1771, oil on canvas, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Joseph Wright of Derby in Liverpool
was co-organized by the Center and the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool. It was curated by Elizabeth E. Barker (BA 1992), Director and Chief Curator of the Mead Art Museum at Amherst College, and Alex Kidson, Curator of British Art at the Walker Art Gallery. At the Center, Julia Marciari Alexander, Associate Director for Exhibitions and Publications, and Eleanor Hughes, Assistant Curator for Exhibitions and Publications, served as the organizing curators. The exhibition coincided with a two-year celebration of Liverpool’s cultural heritage, the 800th anniversary of its charter in 2007, and its status as European Capital of Culture in 2008.


Walker Art Gallery:
November 17, 2007–February 24, 2008

Yale Center for British Art:
May 22–August 31, 2008