In late 2009 the National Gallery of Victoria was given two extraordinary paintings by the renowned 18th century British artist Joseph Wright of Derby, including this Self-portrait. The work came to Australia in late 1841 when the artist’s sixty-three year old daughter Harriet bravely emigrated on the small cargo ship Widgeon with her nephew John Edward Cade and two of his daughters.
This work is part of an extraordinary series of six known painted self-portraits by Wright. From around the age of twenty, Wright imaged himself in oil at around ten year intervals, leaving an insightful visual legacy of his development as an artist and a person.
This work is clearly by a mature artist who possesses great technical skill. The fur collar Wright wears is superbly treated as is his gold trimmed house-coat that is painted in a rich green, Wright’s signature colour. The flesh is modelled with soft chiaroscuro and he emerges from the dark background into a soft warm light that defines his form and touches highlights in his clothing, nose, lips, eyes and hand. Wright has so skilfully manipulated light here that it contextualises the work among his ‘candlelight paintings’ of the mid-1760s; the works that have ensured his high place in the pantheon of art history. The gesture of his chin resting on his right hand is endearing, not confronting and his demeanour is welcoming and warm. His gaze in particular is rivetingly hypnotic making the work psychologically engaging.
Wright sports a scarf wrapped fashionably around his head, a manner of dress inspired most directly by Rembrandt’s fancy self-portraits. Exotic head-wear was already something of a cliché among Wright’s profession. It was also symbolic of a Romantic culture of elite artists, writers, musicians and intellectuals of the Enlightenment, a high status Wright accurately perceived himself to have attained.
Text by Laurie Benson © National Gallery of Victoria, Australia