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Joseph Wright (1734-1797)
A lighthouse on fire at night

This dramatic composition is a late and highly developed treatment of a theme that fascinated Wright from his time in Rome: a dramatically lit landscape with two light sources, one natural and the other man-made.

Wright visited Italy between 1773 and 1775 where he developed his growing interest in landscape painting and was inspired by the works of contemporaries active in Rome at the time, notably Joseph Vernet (1714-1789). A version of the same scene at Tate Britain, painted in calmer conditions, with a more limpid, reflective light, suggests that he was also inspired by Vernet’s habit of painting landscape and coastal views as pairs, contrasting atmospheric effects at different times of day.

This dramatic moonlit landscape was painted for John Leigh Philips (1761-1814), one of Wright’s closest friends in his later years. Philips was a successful silk weaver and among the most significant collectors of books, paintings, drawings and prints in Manchester. Although the subject is developed from a sketch of Vesuvius from the Mole (1774, Derby City Museum and Art Gallery), the landscape is also based on that at Whitby on the Yorkshire coast.

The painting was acquired by the Fitzwilliam Museum in October 2006 with the assistance of a grant from the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund, and a contribution from the Friends of the Fitzwilliam Museum.

It will feature prominently in the Museum’s autumn exhibition The Eighteenth Century: The Age of Reason? which opens on 23 October 2007


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