Three Persons Viewing the Gladiator by Candlelight

Last updated
Three Persons Viewing the Gladiator by Candlelight by Joseph Wright of Derby (1765; Private collection). Three Persons Viewing the Gladiator by Candlelight.jpg
Three Persons Viewing the Gladiator by Candlelight by Joseph Wright of Derby (1765; Private collection).

Three Persons Viewing the Gladiator by Candlelight is a 1765 painting by Joseph Wright of Derby and now resides in a private collection in the United Kingdom. It depicts three men examining a reproduction of the Borghese Gladiator, a famous Hellenistic statue discovered in Italy. The painting was one of the first in Wright of Derby's "Candlelight Pictures" series and was originally exhibited in London, gaining much attention. [1] Four years later a mezzotint of it was made by William Pether.

Contents

The so-called "Borghese Gladiator", the work of Agasias of Ephesus (Louvre Museum) Borghese Gladiator, Louvre Museum, Paris 2 October 2014.jpg
The so-called "Borghese Gladiator", the work of Agasias of Ephesus (Louvre Museum)

Composition

With only a candle as a light source, much of the painting is made up of black shadows. Many of the forms fade into the darkness, leaving them with vague or nonexistent borders. A black expanse of negative space and a small lantern hanging from the ceiling suggests the existence of a room. The warm colors of the flame provide a stark contrast against the dark shadows of the space. Wright's use of tenebrism creates a sense of drama and life within the image. This use of tenebrism is comparable to the works of the old masters, reinforcing an Enlightenment idea of building off of the past while modernizing the present. [2] High contrasts of light and shadow illuminate and deepen the objects, textures, and features of those within the room. [3] Despite the high contrast in this painting, no part of the work feels rigid or abrupt. The glow of the candle gives everything within its light a smooth feeling. The light shines gently on the onlookers, highlighting soft, wispy hair, smooth skin, and the soft stone of the Gladiator reproduction.

Wright's use of light, color, and line aid in drawing the viewer's eyes to the center of the work. The eye is immediately drawn to the pop of red color on the center figure's lapels. The candlelight causes the lapels to cast deep shadows, which in turn create well-defined diagonal lines that carry the viewer's eyes upwards to the man's face. The man's cheeks and lips have a rosy hue, emulating the red of his lapels and creating a sense of unity within the figure. The viewer can follow the man's focused eyes to the figure of the Gladiator. The neck and chest of the reproduction are well lit, reflecting bright white light that pulls the attention to its body. The chiseled lines of the Gladiator's figure are emphasized using shadows. These elements create a clear focal point in the center of the work: the interaction between the statue and the man who is intently studying it.

Upon inspection, it becomes clear that the viewer does not actually have the best view of this scene. The viewer is not studying the gladiator like the subjects are doing, as the perspective that the viewer is seeing does not show much of the illuminated side of the gladiator. Instead, the viewer is intended to see all of the figures. Likewise, the elderly man on the left does not have a very good viewpoint of the Gladiator. It is clear that he is the educator in this scene, with his two pupils observing and sketching the model. Wright organized the figures in a balanced way – the figures in shadow are on either side of the canvas while the well-lit figures fall in the center. The unity and balance of this painting create a sense of calmness. The subjects are focused and at ease while learning in the warm and peaceful setting that Wright has created.

Joseph Wright of Derby and the Enlightenment

In the mid-1700s, London began to experience a shift in attitude, knowledge, and beliefs known as The Enlightenment. People were liberated from stringent political regimes, superstition due to the lack of knowledge, and a feeling of social exclusion based on class. [4] Standards for artists changed as well. During this time period, The Academy had a tendency to favor works that referenced religion or classical stories and figures. [5]

Throughout the course of his life, Joseph Wright of Derby made it a point to interact with people of all forms of a new, Enlightenment-Era class known as Polite Society. His circle of contacts consisted of architects, painters, scientists, philosophers, Lunar Society members, Freemasons, and many others. [6] This background allowed him to incorporate Enlightenment ideas into his artwork.

In many ways, The Gladiator embodied these Enlightenment ideas. The use of the model of the Borghese Gladiator made the painting a sort of "modern genre image." Models of the Borghese Gladiator, such as the one in the image, were common items that were available for sale and display in the households of the professional upper class. [7] The use of the Borghese Gladiator also upholds the idealistic, heroic, and classical ideals of The Academy. [8]

The Theme of Learning

The Gladiator references the theme of learning that characterizes The Enlightenment. Specifically, The Gladiator refers to the Lockean view of sight, a popular view that suggests that sight is what fuels the development of the intellect. The darkness of the room has been suggested to serve as a metaphor for the space in the mind that will be filled with the new ideas that are developed through sight. [9] The elderly man on the left, a scholar, appears to be presenting the Gladiator, which is made evident by his pose. He is pushing the Gladiator reproduction forward in a way that does not allow him a good view of the subject, but provides the perfect angle for his pupils. He is thought to be representative of the wisdom that the older generations provide and a reminder that a love of art and pursuit of knowledge can never be satisfied. [10] He is the educator in these scene, with his two pupils observing and sketching the model. The idea of learning from sight is further supported by the drawings that the younger men are creating. This shows the “visual experience” of knowledge and thought. [11]

Notes

  1. Barker, “New Light on ‘The Orrery,’” 32.
  2. Solkin, Painting for Money: The Visual Arts and the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-Century England, 216.
  3. Egerton, “Joseph Wright of Derby: “Self-Portrait in a Fur Cap”.”, 133.
  4. Daniels, Joseph Wright, 8.
  5. Daniels, Joseph Wright, 9.
  6. Daniels, Joseph Wright, 9-10.
  7. Solkin, Painting for Money: The Visual Arts and the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-Century England, 215.
  8. Daniels, Joseph Wright, 33.
  9. Solkin, Painting for Money: The Visual Arts and the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-Century England, 216.
  10. Solkin, Painting for Money: The Visual Arts and the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-Century England, 219.
  11. Solkin, Painting for Money: The Visual Arts and the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-Century England, 218.

Related Research Articles

Chiaroscuro Use of strong contrasts between light and dark in art

Chiaroscuro, in art, is the use of strong contrasts between light and dark, usually bold contrasts affecting a whole composition. It is also a technical term used by artists and art historians for the use of contrasts of light to achieve a sense of volume in modelling three-dimensional objects and figures. Similar effects in cinema and photography also are called chiaroscuro.

Joseph Wright of Derby 18th-century English painter

Joseph Wright, styled Joseph Wright of Derby, was an English landscape and portrait painter. He has been acclaimed as "the first professional painter to express the spirit of the Industrial Revolution."

Derby Museum and Art Gallery museum and art gallery in Derby, England

Derby Museum and Art Gallery was established in 1879 in Derby, England, along with Derby Central Library, in a new building designed by Richard Knill Freeman and given to Derby by Michael Thomas Bass. The collection includes a gallery displaying many paintings by Joseph Wright of Derby; there is also a large display of Royal Crown Derby and other porcelain from Derby and the surrounding area. Further displays include archaeology, natural history, geology, military collections and world cultures. The Art Gallery was opened in 1882.

Tenebrism painting technique

Tenebrism, from Italian tenebroso, also occasionally called dramatic illumination, is a style of painting using profoundly pronounced chiaroscuro, where there are violent contrasts of light and dark, and where darkness becomes a dominating feature of the image. The technique was developed to add drama to an image through a spotlight effect, and was popular in Baroque painting. Tenebrism is used only to obtain a dramatic impact while chiaroscuro is a broader term, also covering the use of less extreme contrasts of light to enhance the illusion of three-dimensionality.

<i>Borghese Gladiator</i> Hellenistic sculpture

The Borghese Gladiator is a Hellenistic life-size marble sculpture portraying a swordsman, created at Ephesus about 100 BC, now on display at the Louvre.

<i>An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump</i> Oil-on-canvas painting by Joseph Wright of Derby

An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump is a 1768 oil-on-canvas painting by Joseph Wright of Derby, one of a number of candlelit scenes that Wright painted during the 1760s. The painting departed from convention of the time by depicting a scientific subject in the reverential manner formerly reserved for scenes of historical or religious significance. Wright was intimately involved in depicting the Industrial Revolution and the scientific advances of the Enlightenment. While his paintings were recognized as exceptional by his contemporaries, his provincial status and choice of subjects meant the style was never widely imitated. The picture has been owned by the National Gallery, London, since 1863 and is still regarded as a masterpiece of British art. In June 2015 it was on loan to The Glen Bar, Carndonagh [Citation needed].

The Engraving Copyright Act 1734 or Engravers' Copyright Act was an Act of the Parliament of Great Britain first read on 4 March 1734/35 and eventually passed on 25 June 1735 to give protections to producers of engravings. It is also called Hogarth's Act after William Hogarth, who prompted the law together with some fellow engravers. Historian Mark Rose notes, "The Act protected only those engravings that involved original designs and thus, implicitly, made a distinction between artists and mere craftsmen. Soon, however, Parliament was persuaded to extend protection to all engravings."

<i>A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery</i> painting by Joseph Wright of Derby

A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery, or the full title, A Philosopher giving that Lecture on the Orrery in which a lamp is put in place of the Sun, is a 1766 painting by Joseph Wright of Derby depicting a lecturer giving a demonstration of an orrery to a small audience. It is now in the Derby Museum and Art Gallery The painting preceded his similar An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump.

Peter Perez Burdett English cartographer, surveyor, artist and draughtsman

Peter Perez Burdett was an 18th-century cartographer, surveyor, artist, and draughtsman originally from Eastwood in Essex where he inherited a small estate and the name Perez from his maternal grandfather who was the clergyman there. He would have been notable just for his many appearances in Joseph Wright's pictures but he was also involved with numerous projects including surveying the route for one of the major projects of the industrial revolution, the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, in 1769. He has been described as "if not in the centre at least in the penumbra of the Lunar Society of Birmingham". He spent the last years of his life in Karlsruhe, avoiding debtors, but still active in German society. His German daughter married a Count.

Midlands Enlightenment

The Midlands Enlightenment, also known as the West Midlands Enlightenment or the Birmingham Enlightenment, was a scientific, economic, political, cultural and legal manifestation of the Age of Enlightenment that developed in Birmingham and the wider English Midlands during the second half of the eighteenth century.

<i>The Alchemist Discovering Phosphorus</i> painting by Joseph Wright of Derby

The Alchemist Discovering Phosphorus is a painting by Joseph Wright of Derby originally completed in 1771 then reworked in 1795. The full title of the painting is The Alchymist, in Search of the Philosopher's Stone, Discovers Phosphorus, and prays for the successful Conclusion of his operation, as was the custom of the Ancient Chymical Astrologers. It has been suggested that The Alchymist refers to the discovery of phosphorus by the Hamburg alchemist Hennig Brand in 1669. This story was often printed in popular chemical books in Wright's lifetime, and was widely known.

<i>The Blacksmiths Shop</i> painting by Joseph Wright of Derby

The Blacksmith's Shop is a recurring theme of five paintings by Joseph Wright of Derby. The version in his home town was originally completed in 1771.

<i>A Philosopher by Lamplight</i> painting by Joseph Wright of Derby

A Philosopher by lamplight is a painting by Joseph Wright of Derby. It is not known when Wright painted the picture, but it was first exhibited in 1769 in London with the Society of Artists. This was one of the earliest of many lamplight or candlelight paintings and portraits for which Wright is famed.

<i>Dovedale by Moonlight</i> painting by Joseph Wright of Derby

Dovedale by Moonlight, 1784, is one of five paintings by Joseph Wright of Derby which uses the picturesque valley of Dovedale as its subject. These paintings were sometimes made as pairs with one showing the view by day and the other by moonlight. Wright admitted that he had not observed this scene directly, "Moon lights & fire lights are but a sort of work with me for I cant with impunity go out at night and study the former, & the latter I have seen but once, and at a time too, when I thought not of painting such effects."

<i>Grotto in the Gulf of Salerno</i> Painting by Joseph Wright of Derby

Grotto in the Gulf of Salerno is the subject of at least four paintings completed by Joseph Wright of Derby following his visit there in 1774. The paintings show the different lighting at different times of the day.

<i>Magdalene with the Smoking Flame</i> painting by Georges de La Tour

Magdalene with the Smoking Flame is a 1640 oil-on-canvas depiction of Mary Magdalene by French Baroque painter Georges de La Tour. Two versions of this painting exist, one in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the other in the Louvre Museum.

Night in paintings (Western art)

The depiction of night in paintings is common in Western art. Paintings that feature a night scene as the theme may be religious or history paintings, genre scenes, portraits, landscapes, or other subject types. Some artworks involve religious or fantasy topics using the quality of dim night light to create mysterious atmospheres. The source of illumination in a night scene—whether it is the moon or an artificial light source—may be depicted directly, or it may be implied by the character and coloration of the light that reflects from the subjects depicted.

David Hersh Solkin, FBA is the Walter H. Annenberg Professor of the History of Art at the Courtauld Institute, which he joined in 1986. In 2007, Solkin became the Institute's first Dean and Deputy Director. Solkin is an expert in the art of J. M. W. Turner.

<i>Vesuvius from Posillipo by Moonlight</i> painting by Joseph Wright of Derby

Vesuvius from Posillipo by Moonlight was painted by Joseph Wright of Derby in 1774. It is an oil painting of Mount Vesuvius in the distance, from the coastal shores of Naples at night. Dark grey smoke spews from the glowing red crater of the volcano and fills up the top right of the canvas, in contrast to the pale glow of moonlight to the left. Known as a "Painter of Light," Wright liked to play with highlights and shadows in his works and was most well known for his "Candlelight Pictures," landscape or genre scenes depicting dramatic contrasts between light and dark. Through utilizing this technique, Joseph Wright exhibits the sublimity of nature in Vesuvius from Posillipo by Moonlight as well as his other paintings of Mt. Vesuvius.

<i>Two Girls Dressing a Kitten by Candlelight</i> painting by Joseph Wright of Derby

Two Girls Dressing a Kitten by Candlelight is a "fancy painting" by Joseph Wright of Derby (1734–1797). The picture is one of a number of candlelit studies made by Wright that demonstrate his skill in the use of chiaroscuro in which he specialised. Apparently an innocent scene of little girls dressing a kitten, the picture has been thought by art historians to have a number of deeper meanings.

References