Joseph Wright (Wright of Derby) (British, Derby 1734–1797 Derby)
Oil on canvas
49 7/8 x 40 in. (126.7 x 101.6 cm)
Gift of Heathcote Art Foundation, 1986
Not on view
Joseph Wright of Derby was the first major British painter to work almost entirely outside London. Most of his patrons were merchants or industrialists from the Midlands or members of the local gentry. This portrait of an unknown lady was probably painted about 1770, the high point of Wright's early career as a portraitist, and is a fine example of the direct, descriptive style he employed—far removed from the artificial conventions favored in London society.
The portrait came to light during a 1984 appraisal of property in the estate of Josephine Heathcote Haskell. David Fraser of the City of Derby Museums and Art Gallery confirmed the attribution to Wright of Derby (correspondence in departmental files). Although no documentation concerning the works of art in her collection was found, Haskell, of English descent, was said to have bought English pictures and furnishings for her New York town house beginning in the 1930s. On grounds of style and costume, the canvas must date to about 1770, but the sitter’s identity is unknown, and unlikely to be discovered. In view of the date, she could have been from Liverpool, Derby, or the environs.
When painting women, Wright, influenced by the prominent portrait painter Thomas Hudson (1701–1779), under whom he had studied, showed a preference for satin fabric, pearl jewelry, gauze, and lace. The two artists also shared a fondness for the color rose, in Wright’s case, the exact shade illustrated here. Wright shows some of his sitters in their own, precisely described clothes, while others, such as this young woman, wear what were often referred to as draperies. For example, Mrs. Catherine Swindell, in an undated oval half-length (New Walk Museum and Art Gallery, Leicester) assigned to the same period as the present work, wears rose-colored draperies, with a low neckline and wide sleeves, as seen here. Both sitters have brown hair dressed high and twined with a gauze veil, a ribbon, and pearls.
The sitter in the Museum's portrait is making fillet lace, a length of which is attached to the small weighted bundle and to one of the two netting shuttles that she holds. Her scissors and workbag lie on the table. Such objects have been described by Stephen Daniels (Joseph Wright, Princeton, 1999, p. 13) as “emblems of activity,” typical of a culture in which industrious behavior in the home was admired.
[2010; adapted from Baetjer 2009]
Josephine Mercy Heathcote Haskell, New York (until d. 1982); Heathcote Art Foundation (1982–86)
London. Tate Gallery. "Wright of Derby," February 7–April 22, 1990, no. 34.
Paris. Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais. "Joseph Wright of Derby, 1734–1797," May 17–July 23, 1990, no. 34.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Wright of Derby," September 6–December 2, 1990, no. 34.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "AngloMania: Tradition and Transgression in British Fashion," May 3–September 4, 2006, unnumbered cat. (p. 153).
David Fraser. Letter to David Moore-Gwyn. May 11, 1984, accepts the attribution to Joseph Wright of Derby and implies that the portrait may have been painted about 1770.
Lucy Oakley inRecent Acquisitions: A Selection, 1986–1987. New York, 1987, p. 37, ill.
Judy Egerton. Wright of Derby. Exh. cat., Tate Gallery. London, 1990, p. 79, no. 34, ill. (color).
Elizabeth E. Barker and Alex Kidson Walker Art Gallery. Joseph Wright of Derby in Liverpool. Liverpool, 2007, p. 55, fig. 60 (color).
Katharine Baetjer. British Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1575–1875. New York, 2009, pp. 136–38, no. 61, ill. (color).