Attempts toward fame and fortune: Joseph Wright of Derby and late-renaissance Humanism.

Author:May, Suzanne E.


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.


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. His anecdotes were the source for much of the artistic lore that was established in the renaissance and that remained current throughout the 18th century. (4) In his telling of the Corinthian Maid stow, Dibutades was in love with a young man who was soon departing, and to preserve his likeness she traced in outline his lamplit shadow on a wall, which her father then filled in with clay and baked along with his other pottery. (5) Pliny identified this as the founding of the plastic arts, but given that other classical and renaissance sources had discussed the legendary origins of painting in terms of the simple tracing of a man's shadow, academic theorists recognized the potential for conflation, and the Corinthian Maid stood as an emblem for the two academically privileged arts, painting and sculpture. As a figurehead for the history of the art of painting, the Corinthian Maid became to neoclassicists what St Luke had been to the medieval guilds. (6) The tale illustrated such relevant treatises as the 1716 English edition of Charles Alphonse du Fresnoy's De arte graphica (first translated by John Dryden in 1695), which was published under the auspices of Alexander Pope and Charles Jervas (Pl 2). The Art of Painting was a poetic essay on ut pictura poesis, and was a significant element in the introduction of French neoclassical, academic philosophy into Britain. The poem's popularity continued beyond the Augustan era: it was translated into English at least six more times throughout the 18th century, including William Mason's 1783 edition with commentary by Sir Joshua Reynolds.

Reynolds's intellect functioned within an established body of knowledge, a frame of reference that included Du Fresnoy and other Continental neoclassicists of the 17th century as well as antique writings on art as filtered through the renaissance humanists. The influence of Giorgio Vasari's Lives of the Artists is evident in the Discourses, which digested the biographer's pedagogical construct of a progress in the arts that reached ultimate excellence in Raphael and Michelangelo. Reynolds also assimilated the principles of Leon Battista Alerti's seminal treatise De pictura of 1435 (translated into Italian as Della pittura a year later and into English more than once during the 18th century). Alerti urged artists to improve their professional status by becoming learned in all the liberal arts and by associating with poets and orators, who are 'full of information about many subjects and will be of great assistance in preparing the composition of a historia'. (7) Reynolds repeats Alerti almost verbatim in his Seventh Discourse of 1776, saying that artists should read poetry, and better yet, consult 'learned and ingenious men', assuring his audience that, 'There are many such men in this age; and they will be pleased with communicating their ideas to artists, when they see them curious and docile, if they are treated with that respect and deference which is so justly their due.' (8) Reynolds's advice to British artists is both rhetorical and pragmatic: the artist is not necessarily ignorant or illiterate, but busy. The well-travelled artist William Hodges supports this in his lavishly produced publication on his tour of India. The book's preface acknowledges the assistance he received from literary friends, and he explains that becoming proficient in painting and practising it as a profession leaves 'little leisure for the cultivation of literature'. (9) Such time-management issues would be especially felt by those artists combining aspirations for history paintings with the demands of a thriving portraiture business. George Romney said he was too busy to read for himself because of that 'cursed portrait-painting' and relied on various literary friends to supply him with subject-matter to consider. (10)

Reynolds knew that there were in fact manifold services that could be provided by highly literate friends. As well as suggesting appropriate subjects and giving tips on how a story should be treated in paint, literary figures could liaise with potential patrons and write letters on behalf of the artist. They were often capable of translating texts into English, acting as mediators to enfranchise the less scholarly artist into the world of classical literature. Poets and writers had traditionally been socially higher placed than artists and therefore held the privilege of introducing their friends or proteges into society--literally and figuratively through the praise and poetry written about them. The number of poems and epistles addressed to Reynolds bears out the many comments in Vasari on the usefulness of earning the respect of poets: not only did Giotto achieve status through his association with Dante and Petrarch, but Petrarch's verse on Simone Martini brought more fame to the artist 'than all his own works have done'; two centuries later, Titian's association with Aretino 'proved of great advantage to Titian, in spreading his name as far as Pietro's pen reached, especially to notable princes'. (11)

Reynolds no doubt considered himself a special case, as an artist and a literary man, like Vasari, and his relationships with literary figures are consequentially complex. His friendship with the poet laureate Thomas Warton resulted in Verses on Sir Joshua Reynolds's Painted Window at New-College Oxford in 1782, which was revised upon Reynolds's advice. He was similarly involved in the writing of those sections of James Beattie's Dissertations, Moral and Critic (1783) that directly referred to himself. That Reynolds understood the fundamental ways in which the relationships between painters and poets operated was noticed by Mrs. Thrale, who remarked that he spent an inordinate amount of time getting his literary friends to write praise about him. (12) Henry Fuseli, every bit as erudite as Reynolds and not above reviewing favourably his own works in the Analytical Review, also contrived to have...

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