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A Philosopher Giving a Lecture on the Orrery

Updated: Jun 4, 2022

A Philosopher Giving a Lecture on the Orrery. Joseph Wright of Derby. 1763-1765 CE. Oil on canvas.


Joseph Wright of Derby’s beautiful oil painting captures the essence of the Enlightenment. If you are unfamiliar with the Enlightenment, it was a movement during the 18th century that challenged traditional authority and believed that society could be improved through rational change. Enlightenment thinkers applied new methods of thinking to politics, society, and human institutions. For example, John Locke was an Enlightened thinker and he believed in natural rights, which was the idea that God, rather than a monarch, gave human beings the right to life, liberty, and property. While most assume that mainly scientists played a role in the Enlightenment, artists were significant because they helped spread Enlightenment ideas with their work. Joseph Wright of Derby was an important artist who spread the messages of the Enlightenment.

How does this painting capture the Enlightenment?

An orrery is a mechanical model of the solar system. In the painting we see men, a woman, and children gathering around an orrery, showing that no matter their differences, they share an appreciation for science and observation. The children, highlighted by the light, stare at the all-encompassing machine, as the man to the left takes notes of the observation. A woman to the left stares at the machine, while another man shields himself from the light as he gazes. The main idea here is that everyone is either admiring or encapsulated by the orrery. Their facial expressions capture a main idea of the Enlightenment, which was that society would be best advanced through empirical observation based on science and reason. Also, the fact that the figures are so inspired by the orrery depicts the new interest in science that came with the Enlightenment.

How does light play a role?

Joseph Wright of Derby was inspired by Baroque artists, specifically Caravaggio, which is evident by the painting's dramatic lighting and shadows. In the piece, Wright utilizes chiaroscuro: the contrast between light and dark. The orrery is emulating light onto the surrounding faces, perhaps to suggest that the people are literally and metaphorically participating in an enlightenment. The faces of the children are especially highlighted to emphasize the importance of education, which was prevalent during the Enlightenment. In addition, the orrery and the people observing are highlighted, while the background is darker. This was possibly done to emphasize the science and observation that was occuring, instead of focusing on minute details in the background. Light is used to emphasize the orrery as the focal point of the composition. The figures gathering around the device also emphasizes this point.

Fun fact: the composition of the painting is in the shape of an ellipse, which is how the planets orbit, further showing the new interest in science that came with the Enlightenment


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