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UMMA Acquires Rediscovered Masterpiece by Joseph Wright of Derby


Joseph Wright of Derby
English, 1734–1797
The Dead Soldier
Oil on canvas
2006/1.156

In a major coup, the Museum of Art has acquired a great masterwork of eighteenth-century European painting. Executed by the celebrated English artist Joseph Wright of Derby (1734–1797) and entitled The Dead Soldier, the exceptional 49 ¾ x 64-inch canvas is housed in its original carved wood and gilded frame. Preeminent Wright of Derby scholar Benedict Nicholson described the painting—first shown, to great excitement, at London’s Royal Academy in 1789, the year it was made—in his 1968 catalogue raisonné of Wright as “one of the pictures for which he was most famous in his day.”

Wright, who spent most of his career in his native Derby in the industrial north of England, was a member of England’s most progressive intellectual circles in the eighteenth century. Among Wright’s friends were members of the Lunar Society, including some of the pioneering scientists and industrialists of the day such as Erasmus Darwin and Josiah Wedgwood, who fueled Wright’s enthusiasm for depicting the era’s technological advances through particularly powerful genre narratives. As a painter, Wright is known for his innovative and dramatic use of light and shadow that derived from Italian Baroque iconoclast Caravaggio (1571/2–1610) and his Dutch followers, but applied to contemporary, even avant-garde, subjects.

The Dead Soldier renders a woman draped in costuming suggestive of the Hellenistic period in ancient Greece, cradling her child, with a dramatically foreshortened cavalryman crumpled at her side. Newly widowed and destitute, the mourning woman joins the hands of the child with her own and that of her dead husband, linking their sad fates. That the child has fallen away from suckling at his mother’s breast is an almost certain emblem of the poverty that awaits mother and infant. What was perhaps most radical about the painting in its own moment is that the viewer is asked to empathize deeply with an anonymous figure: we can know nothing of the dead soldier’s identity other than what his uniform tells us, and the hint from the painting’s date that he may have fallen in the American Revolution. It is the infant who gives us entry into the painting, looking out calmly, even sternly to meet our gaze.

The bravura painting is emblematic of Wright’s astonishing talent as essentially a painter of the Romantic movement before the fact. The brushwork is intentionally loose, with the qualities of a sketch even though the painting is in fact highly finished. A smaller variant of the painting by Wright, now in the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, is almost certainly a later reworking of the composition by the artist: substantial repainting, or pentimenti, visible in x-ray in the UMMA painting reveal it to have been the prototype in which the artist was working out his compositional intentions.

In 2001 UMMA purchased from Elwes an unfinished portrait of Lord Charles Spencer by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792), who as a portrait painter and first president of the Royal Academy is considered one of England’s most influential artists. That earlier purchase was specifically selected for what its unfinished quality reveals of the artist’s processes.