A Philosopher giving that Lecture on the Orrery, in which a lamp is put in place of the Sun - exhibited 1766.
Oil on canvas, 1473 x 2032mm
Joseph Wright's masterpiece depicts a ‘Natural Philosopher’ - or scientist, using an Orrery to demonstrate the workings of the solar system. A light has been placed in the position of the sun, probably to demonstrate the causes of eclipses. The rays from this flood over the group and act as a painted metaphor for the light of knowledge that the group receives, and indeed for the ‘age of enlightenment’ itself.
An Orrery is an early form of planetarium. Travelling lectures were organized up and down the country to explain the latest scientific developments and it is likely that Wright attended one in Derby. The Orrery was invented in the early eighteenth century to show the movement of the planets round the sun during the course of the year. It was named after the Earl of Orrery who was the patron of the invention.
The audience listening to the philosopher consists of ordinary, middle-class people and their faces express surprise and wonderment at what they are hearing. It is important to remember that it was still relatively recently that Newton had claimed that the planets moved around the sun - and not around the earth. It is fitting, therefore, that Wright has modelled his philosopher on a painting of Isaac Newton by Godfrey Kneller. The figure to the left of the philosopher is Wright's friend Peter Perez Burdett. None of the other figures have been identified but they represent a good variety of types that add interest to the composition.
Along with Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump this is probably one of Wright's most famous paintings. It is certainly one of the most popular with visitors to Derby. The painting was purchased by public subscription in 1884 and presented to Derby Art Gallery. In 1973 the painting and frame were restored and it has since remained a centre piece of the Museum's collection.
Large view of The Orrery 1.72MB
Currently to be found in the Joseph Wright Gallery at Derby Museum and Art Gallery.
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