Paper Assignment 2: Research Paper

Muhsin Halim

Art History 102


April 11, 2006

The painting ‘A Philosopher giving that Lecture on the Orrery, in which a lamp is put in place of the Sun’ is one of James Wright of Derby’s most popular works. It is also referred to simply as ‘Orrery’. The subject of the painting represented the interest that people had in the sciences at the time, particularly the universe and the way it operated. It was done during the period of Enlightenment in the 18th century where major advancements in science and technology were being made. New ways of thinking about the universe were being made and new ideas were being explored as a result of the theories and discoveries made by earlier scientists such as Isaac Newton. The demonstration shown in ‘Orrery’ illustrates an example of scientific discovery that is based on Newton’s theory about how the universe operates. This painting can be classified as a “history painting” because it shows a representation of the significant discoveries being made about the world at the time. The light coming from the orrery represents that of the sun casting its light on all of the figures in the image in front of a dark background. This light can be seen as a metaphor for the knowledge and new scientific discoveries of the time period being cast onto the people. The participants are brought in from the dark and are attracted to and fascinated with the new scientific knowledge that is presented to them by the philosopher.

In the painting, a philosopher is the leading figure, with a distinct red being worn, and is giving an orrery demonstration to seven onlookers. The orrery was a new invention at the time, invented earlier in the 18th century. It is a mechanical device that illustrates the motions and phases of the planets around the sun, which is usually represented by a brass ball or a lamp (Egerton 16). The audience that surrounds the orrery consists of three men, a woman, and three children. The children, the woman, and the youngest man look intently at the model, all fascinated by what they see is a representation of the universe and how the planets move around the sun. One of the other two men in the audience is sitting down looking at the philosopher listening to what he has to say and seems to be admiring his intelligence. The other man is standing next to the philosopher, taking notes. The philosopher is looking toward the note-taker, who is established to be Wright’s friend Peter Perez Burdett (Egerton 54). Wright uses realism in the details of the painting, effectively using light and shadows to create a realistic image. The brightest parts of the painting are shown in the faces of the children closest to the center of the orrery, while the very dark background, the shadows on the backs of the people on the side, and the silhouette of the child in front of the orrery create a centralized light that is enclosed by the participants.There are even details in the background in the curtain and books and the faint light that hits them. He used a lot of realism and especially the effects of light in most of his works.

Joseph Wright’s circle of friends consisted of mainly philosophers and scientists who belonged to an important group, the Lunar Society, so he was able to keep up with current scientific ideas that inspired him to create a scientific painting (Egerton 15), which was a change from his former paintings that consisted of mostly portraiture. Scientific demonstrations like this one in Wright’s painting were popular in the mid-eighteenth century (Egerton 16). This painting shows a demonstration that was based on Newton’s theory of gravitation and the operation of the universe, which “presented a view of the universe as an ordered, harmonious system”. This new idea had a significant impact on man and his perception of the world around him. As illustrated in the painting, the members of the audience appear deep in thought and wonder in response to what is being presented to them. Because of the significance of this new understanding of the world demonstrated in ‘Orrery’, it is said to be a “history painting” in both Gardner’s Art through the Ages and a review by Nicola Kalinsky in“Joseph Wright of Derby at the Tate. London, Tate Gallery”. Since everyone in the painting “is caught up in the wonders of scientific knowledge, an ordinary painting takes on the qualities of a grand ‘history painting’ (Kleiner & Mamiya 807). Kalinsky writes that the subject is “up-to-date and is presented as being of universal significance” and is an “unquestionable history painting” (Kalinsky 283). It is suggested that the philosopher in the painting is given the physical appearance of Isaac Newton. Judy Egerton compares that figure to the painting of Newton by Sir Godfrey Kneller, which reveals that these two figures have a very similar physical appearance (Egerton 54). This shows that Newton was seen as an ideal representation of a philospher because of his significant achievements in science.The advancements made in science at the time and a new way of thinking were the influence of Wright’s painting.

Not only does the painting ‘Orrery’ depict a realistic scene demonstrating the scientific and technological advancements of the time; it can also be seen as a metaphor for gaining knowledge. The light coming from the orrery represents knowledge and the faces of the audience members are illuminated as they are drawn in from the dark into the light. This signifies “the illumination of their minds by the light of science, originating from the orrery itself. The figures are literally subject to a process of Enlightenment in the physical, as well as the intellectual, sense” (Egerton 19). Kalinsky mentions that “the stillness and hush is as compelling as the metaphor of light as enlightenment” (283). In Gardner’s Art through the Ages it is noted that the image is composed in a circular fashion that echoes the orbital design of the orrery (807). With the figures in still, circular forming positions around the orrery, and the light beaming onto their faces, it adds the effect that the figures are all taking in the knowledge together. The children are the most eager to learn while the adults take in the knowledge and remain deep in thought about what they see. The note-taker writes down what the philosopher says to preserve what he hears. Since light is depended upon to sustain life and continue to progress, it is an appropriate metaphor to have the light represent knowledge, which people need to progress in life. The eighteenth century was a time of significant progression in terms of science, technology, and philosophy, so it was appropriate to the time period to illustrate in a painting the gaining of knowledge with the use of a scientific demonstration.

One last thing that can be said of the painting ‘Orrery’ is that it can be seen as having religious significance in that the spectators “were contemplating, not just the workings of the solar system, but the operations of God himself” (Egerton 18). The philosopher explains how God regulates the motions of planets around the sun. The adults appear to be in deep thought because of the significantly affected “view of himself, of his place in the natural order, and ultimately of God” (Egerton 17). “Parallel responses of wonder, curiosity, fascination, and awe, can be found in the works of 18th century writers and poets as they come to terms with the Newtonian view of Nature” (Egerton 17). This shows that this painting illustrated something that was similar to what people at the time thought about these relatively new theories of the universe and God.

James Wright of Derby’s painting ‘A Philosopher giving that Lecture on the Orrery, in which a lamp is put in place of the Sun’, done in the early to mid-1760’s and first exhibited in 1766, is a scientific painting that demonstrated the technological and scientific achievements made during the 18th century. The orrery mechanically shows onlookers how Newton’s gravitational theories describe the planetary motions around the sun. The philosopher, modeled after Newton, lectures on this subject to eager listeners wanting to understand the operation of the universe. This painting is described as a history painting because of the historical significance of the subject matter in that time period. Although Wright did not normally paint scientific subjects, his two scientific paintings, including ‘Orrery’ are his most popular paintings. The influences around him and his skill with painting light allowed him to depict a realistic scientific demonstration accurately. The light coming from the orrery can be seen as a metaphor for knowledge that the audience embraces. This was relevant to the time period, the Enlightenment in the 18th century, a time in which people had a new way of thinking and sought understanding of the world around them. The people are brought in from darkness into the light. New ways of thinking about God naturally came with the better understanding of the universe. The painting ‘Orrery’ by James Wright of Derby captures a changing and “enlightened” society of the 18th century with the use of science and realism.

Works Cited

Egerton, Judy. Wright of Derby. London: Tate Gallery Publications, 1990

Kalinsky, Nicola. “Joseph Wright of Derby at the Tate. London, Tate Gallery”. The Burlington Magazine. Vol. 132, No. 1045. (Apr., 1990), pp. 282-283

Kleiner, Fred S., and Christin J. Mamiya. Gardner’s Art through the Ages. USA: Wadsworth/Thompson Learning, 2005


Joseph Wright of Derby, A Philosopher giving that Lecture on the Orrery, in which a lamp is put in place of the Sun. ca 1763-1765. Oil on canvas. 58 x 80”. DerbyArtGallery.