Joseph Wright of Derby, A.R.A. 1795 (Derby 1734-1797), A Cottage on Fire: a moonlit landscape with figures by a burning cottage and the ruins of a castle beyond

signed and dated lower right J.W.Pinx/1793. oil on canvas. 25 by 31 1/4 in.; 63.5 by 79.4 cm. Estimate 350,000—550,000 USD

PROVENANCE: Possibly commissioned by Mr. N. Philips, 1793;
Anonymous sale ("Property of a Gentleman"), London, Christie's, April 14, 1989, lot 55 (as dated 1795);
Private collection, Switzerland.

EXHIBITED: Munich, Haus der Kunst, Die Nacht: Bilder der Nacht in den Bayerischen Staatsgemäldesammlungen, November 1, 1998 – February 7, 1999, no. 62.

LITERATURE AND REFERENCES: Possibly B. Nicholson, Joseph Wright of Derby: Painter of Light, London 1968, Vol. I, p. 270;
J. Egerton, Wright of Derby, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1990, p. 182, under cat. no. 111;
Die Nacht: Bilder der Nacht in den Bayerischen Staatsgemäldesammlungen, exhibition catalogue, Munich 1999, p. 254, cat. no. 62, reproduced.

NOTE: Styled Wright of Derby, Joseph Wright fancied himself on following Gainsborough as the most fashionable English landscape and portrait painter of the 18th century. Having trained in the London studio of the portraitist Thomas Hudson from 1751-53 and thereafter painting members of the rising middle classes, professional people and local landed gentry, portraiture would form the main source of income throughout his career; so much so, that in 1769, Wright completed a portrait on average every nine to ten days. However, portraiture did not inform his work entirely, as both light and landscape remained fixtures in his work, especially after his sojourn to Italy in October of 1773.

The present picture, fraught with ethos, antiquarian interest and rural life, harks back to Wright's Italian journey and his true artistic fascinations: "I know not how it is, tho' I am ingaged in portraits...I find myself continually stealing off, and getting to Landscapes," wrote Wright to his friend John Leigh Phillips on December 31, 1792, the year before he would complete this painting (Derby Public Library). Wright produced several paintings of Cottages on Fire by Night between 1787 and his death ten years later. Most depict the burning cottage on the one side of the picture, a ruined tower on the other, and small figures responding to the event, regarding it in various ways, even as they make their escape. The earliest version appears in the Minneapolis Museum of Art and others in the Yale Center for British Art, the Giles Carter Collection and the Derby Museum. Few of these versions can be connected to those listed in the artist's Account Book,1 to which the present picture may possibly be connected.2

The nocturnal scene that Wright dramatically unfolds is one that features stark contrasts: the hot and effusive monochromatic pink light of the fire versus the yellow moonlight, the cottage consumed by conflagration as opposed to the slowly decaying castle, and the futile attempt of the humble cottagers juxtaposed to the abandoned and lifeless palace that looms at left. These relationships heighten the main subject of the work, the fire, as the artist fully indulges his constant interest in dramatic lighting effects. Wright, who knew several prominent English scientists investigating the nature of light and vision, explored the contrasting lights of the moon and fire in depth, which also reflects the subject's popularity with collectors. Upon returning from Italy, where he witnessed a violent eruption of Mount Vesuvius and the spectacular Girandola, or annual firework display, at the Castel Sant'Angelo in Rome, Wright made sensational lighting effects the keynote of many of his landscapes. The present picture is no exception, as one cannot help but think of fireworks and Vesuvius when watching the floating flicks of fire from the cottage or the distressed and emotional inhabitants.

While Wright's work remained indebted to classical landscape and ruins, his work throughout his later career turned decisively away from mythological landscapes to those with more humble, human subjects based on a more direct engagement with the natural. The present picture, then, can be counted among these prefigured trends in Romantic landscape painting, as themes of tragic destruction would become popular in the 19th century in both England and France. At the same time, this picture reveals its kinship with the decorative landscape styles of the 18th century, seen in its gracefully curving trees, flickering highlights, and effusive coloring.

1. See B. Nicholson, Joseph Wright of Derby: Painter of Light, London, 1968, vol. 2, pp. 270-1.
2. The picture may possibly be that which was painted for Mr. N. Philips, for which Wright was paid 50 gns. (B. Nicholson, Joseph Wright of Derby, p. 271). According to a letter dated 27 December 1794 from the artist to J.L. Philips, a relation of the purchaser, N. Philips had already ordered the picture and intended to send it to America. By 18 December 1795 it had been dispatched to Nottingham with other paintings (see W. Bemrose, Joseph Wright of Derby, A.R.A., 1885, pp. 84 - 96).

Sotheby's. Important Old Master Paintings, Including European Works of Art. 29 Jan 09. New York www.sothebys.com photo courtesy Sotheby's