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A Philosopher Giving that Lecture on the Orrery, in which a Lamp is put in the Place of the Sun

A Philosopher Giving that Lecture on the Orrery

A masterpiece of British art, Wright’s celebrated ‘Orrery’ was first exhibited in London in 1766. It was the second of three subject paintings by which he established his reputation as a highly original artist, specialising in the effects of artificial light. In this picture Wright depicts a contemporary scene of a scientific lecture. A red-gowned philosopher demonstrates the workings of the solar system using a clockwork model known as an Orrery. An oil lamp, its glass jar visible behind the foremost boy’s elbow, replicates the sun’s bright rays. A young girl points to Saturn and the shadow of a moon cast upon its surface, perhaps indicating that the subject of the demonstration is the causes and effects of eclipses. Scientific lectures and demonstrations presented by travelling scientists were a popular form of public entertainment during Wright’s lifetime. As an artist who showed an early interest in mechanics and science, Wright may have attended lectures on astronomy and pneumatics, among other topics, held at the town hall in Derby during the 1750s and 1760s. These events may have inspired the subject of this painting as well as his later, equally famous, 'Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump', first exhibited in 1768. Wright’s ‘Orrery’ engages with the ideas presented in such lectures. Isaac Newton’s theory of the universe formed the foundation of 18th century lectures on astronomy. His discovery of the force of gravity explained how the planets moved around the sun. This confirmation that the Earth was not the centre of the solar system changed the way people viewed themselves, their relationship to God and the world around them. Wright’s figures appear to reflect Newton’s theory, their illuminated faces recalling the faces of the planets as they orbit the sun. Light unites them in an understanding of their place within this larger, ordered system. Wright even appears to have modelled his philosopher on Newton. Wright added the unusual subject of a modern scientific lecture to the popular genre of the ‘conversation piece’, from which ‘The Orrery’ was adapted. Inquiry and learning are made to appear profound and deeply solemn by Wright’s dramatic use of light. By painting such serious and morally minded scenes, Wright aimed to make a place for himself as a serious artist, capable of producing complex works that were both instructive and highly relevant.

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