The Dead Soldier

7:00 AM

Joseph Wright of Derby, The Dead Soldier, 1789


Avid readers and devoted scholars of the arts, if you haven't already, I implore you to fill your homes with the paintings of a certain Joseph Wright of Derby. Named by F.D Klingender as "the first professional painter to express the spirit of the industrial revolution", Wright's work demonstrates the coalescing of science, art, and religion during the 18th century. As a member of the Lunar Scociety, one of England's most progressive intellectual association, Wright bumped shoulders with the likes of Josiah Wedgwood and Erasmus Darwin (father of Charles Darwin). Joseph Wright is truly a must-have for any budding amateur, and I promise, you will not be disappointed. In fact, you may find yourself subsequently enlightened just to know of him. If my assurance is not enough for you skeptics out there, I will use a single painting by our artist, M. Joseph Wight in hopes that you shall accept my solicitations. Thus, I give you 5 truths only Joseph Wright Understands, in such a manner that you may too.

1. An Enlightenment painting isn't an Enlightenment painting without a little Chiaroscuro

Chiaroscuro, the use of light (or lack thereof) to bring attention to certain aspects of a painting. Another word to throw about that's gaurenteed to make you sound like an A+ amateur. In all seriousness, modeled after the masters Rembrandt and Caravaggio, Wright's manipulation of light and dark is intrinsic to this paintings strength. In many of his paintings, Wright uses chiaroscuro to symbolize enlightenment. In his painting Lecture at the Orrery the faces of those listening and learning are lit with a knowledgable light while anyone else is, quite literally, left in the dark. In The Dead Soldier, however, Wright uses darkness paired with natural light to portray the lush greenery and richness of the landscape around the subject. The subject, however, is illuminated by a more artificial light source, coming from beyond the frame of reference. While typically denoting significance, the light here creates a bleakness to the vignette taking place. A deer-caught-in-headlights sort of feeling that gives the impression of a performance unfurling under a spotlight.

2. Soldiers in war are merely playthings and so too are people depicted in paintings
During this time, paintings of war were quite popular and usually fell into one of two categories. First, paintings that utilize the fine detail of portraiture to depict the relationship between officers and soldiers. And secondly, the use of military themes for the expression of sentiment and human emotion to bring the subject of war back to the feelings and thoughts of the enlightenment. Joseph Wright's The Dead Soldier falls into the latter category. As the child falls away from her mother's breast, we are invited into the scene. We see a mother and her husband faceless yet full of emotion. And we feel their emotion. In the same sense, the soldier here, like any other soldier in war, is not the main subject; proposing that men in war merely provide an occasion for the drama. And that's where the next truth comes into play.

3. Paintings don't have to be explicitly conceptualized to enlighten
In the beginning, artists used religion to portray certain aspects of human experience and emotion. As art became more secular, people began painting what they liked, what spoke to them. Self-portraits, still lives and pictures depicting people learning and being taught. What Wright achieved with The Dead Soldier is a conversion of the rationalism of the enlightenment with the birth of the modern age and emotion of the Romantic movement. We see this family torn a part and muted with grief and death. The fact that we are able to emphasize with these otherwise strangers shows the true power of not only Joseph Wright, but of this period in general.

4. When in doubt, contemporary literature is your best friend
Finally, I leave you with a tip from the great Joseph Wright of Derby himself. Bestowed unto me in a letter smelling of rosemary, M. Wright writes: There's no better illustration of modern times than modern literature. And with that, dear readers, I leave you with the following passage from John Langhorne's poem The Country Justice titled "Apology for Vagrants"

Perhaps on some inhospitable shore 

The houseless wretch a widow’d parent bore; 

Who, then no more by golden prospects led, 

Of the poor Indian begg’d a leafy bed. 

Cold on Canadian hills, or Minden’s plain, 

Perhaps that parent mourn’d her soldier slain; 

Bent o’er her babe, her eye dissolv’d in dew, 

The big drops mingling with the milk he drew, 

Gave the sad presage of his future years, 

The child of misery, baptiz’d in tears!

Editor's Note: The authors were asked to write sales copy for Edme-François Gersaint, the prominent rococo art dealer who offered a printed catalog of available works.

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