A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery, full title A Philosopher giving that Lecture on the Orrery in which a lamp is put in place of the Sun, is a painting by Joseph Wright of Derby depicting a lecturer giving a demonstration of an orrery[a]An orrery is a clockwork model of the solar system. to a small audience. It was first exhibited in London in 1766.
The Orrery was the second of Wright’s candlelit masterpieces. The first, Three Persons Viewing the Gladiator by Candlelight, was painted in 1765, and shows three men studying a small copy of the “Borghese Gladiator”. It was greatly admired, but The Orrery caused a greater stir, as it replaced the classical subject at the centre of the scene with a scientific one. Wright may have been inspired by his having attended the presentations of James Ferguson, a travelling science lecturer who visited Derby in 1762.
Wright’s depiction of the awe produced by scientific “miracles” marked a break with previous traditions in which the artistic depiction of such wonder was reserved for religious events; to Wright, the marvels of the technological age were as awe-inspiring as the subjects of the great religious paintings. But more than that, the domestic setting seems to suggest that natural philosophy – what we would today call science – is open to all, “men and women, young and old”.
The lamp representing the Sun allows Wright to make extensive use of chiaroscuroTechnique used in the visual arts that makes use of light and shadow to define three-dimensional objects and surfaces. for dramatic effect, and the shadows cast on the observers’ faces can be seen to correspond to the phases of the moon: new moon, half moon, gibbous moon and full moon.
Provenance and portraits
Figures thought to be portraits of the mathematician and artist Peter Perez Burdett and Washington Shirley, 5th Earl Ferrers, a keen amateur astronomer, feature in the painting. The picture may have been painted speculatively in the hope that the Earl would buy it, which he did; it is now in the Derby Museum and Art Gallery’s collection.
Benedict Nicolson, in his 1968 biography of Wright, argued that the clockmaker and scientist John Whitehurst was the model for the lecturer; another commentator has observed that Wright “appears to have modelled his philosopher on [Isaac] Newton”.
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