Joseph Wright was born in Derby on 3 September 1734, the third son of John Wright and Hannah Brookes. He trained with Thomas Hudson from 1751 to 1753, returned to Derby as a portraitist, but, "not being satisfied with himself," again studied under Hudson between 1756 and 1757, forming a lasting friendship with his fellow pupil John Hamilton Mortimer. He toured the East Midlands as a portrait painter in 1769 and worked in Liverpool from 1768 to 1771; otherwise he practiced in Derby, and the bulk of his output was portraiture. In the mid-1760s he began painting "Candlelight" pictures, his own phrase, chiefly of scientific subjects. He quickly achieved a high reputation in this field, in which he was an innovator. He first exhibited at the Incorporated Society of Artists in 1765, showing there regularly until 1776, when he transferred to the Royal Academy. In 1773 he married Anne Swift, "a person in an inferior station of life;" the couple had six children.
Wright spent nearly two years in Rome, from 1773 to 1775, where he was overwhelmed by the remains of classical antiquity and drew assiduously; on his way home he stopped briefly in Florence, Bologna, Venice, and other centers. When he returned, Wright abandoned his scientific and industrial scenes in favor of landscapes and literary subjects. After a disastrous two years in Bath, where he had hoped to take the place of Gainsborough, who had left for London in 1774, Wright settled in his native Derby. He was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1781 but, after being defeated by Edmund Garvey for full Academicianship in 1783 and feeling constantly dissatisfied with the way his pictures were hung, he declined election the following year and resigned as an Associate. In 1785 he followed Gainsborough's example and held his own exhibition of his works (at Robin's auction rooms in London).
Wright was most at ease in provincial middle-class society, who were his clients, and was in close contact with the Lunar Society (a group interested in experimental science) and with leaders of the Industrial Revolution in the Midlands. From early middle age he suffered from chronic ill health, which frequently incapacitated him for months. His last years were marred by a plethora of complaints, and he died in Derby on 29 August 1797.
[Hayes, John. British Paintings of the Sixteenth through Nineteenth Centuries. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1992: 339-340.]
Nicolson, Benedict. Joseph Wright of Derby: Painter of Light. 2 vols. London, 1968.
Egerton, Judy. Wright of Derby. Exh. cat. Tate Gallery, London; Grand Palais, Paris; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. London, 1990.
Hayes, John. British Paintings of the Sixteenth through Nineteenth Centuries. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1992: 339-340.