Wright painted and drew several self-portraits in romantic attire such as this in the late 1760s and early 1770s – following the contemporary vogue for Hungarian style 'hussar' costume – the finest of which is the portrait currently on loan to Tate Britain, painted circa 1772–73 (Private Collection). That it is certainly a portrait of Wright is confirmed by comparison with the artist’s grisaille pastel Self-Portrait in a Fur Cap (Art Institute of Chicago, fig. 1), drawn circa 1765–68, in which the artist depicts himself wearing a similar fur-lined jacket and matching fur-trimmed turban. Another, slightly later, grisaille pastel self-portrait by Wright, in which he wears the same outfit as in the Chicago drawing but looks over his shoulder at the viewer, rather than straight on, is in the Derby Museum and Art Gallery.2 Another self-portrait from this period, this time in oil, depicts the artist in a similar fur-lined jacket with gold frogging and a turban on his head (National Gallery of Victoria, Australia), only this time the jacket is dark green and the turban a striped silvery grey. It is interesting to note that all these paintings share a number of similarities with the Self-Portrait in the character of a banditti of Wright’s close friend John Hamilton Mortimer (Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne), of around the same date, when both artists were working together at Radbourne Hall.
As well as a characteristic interest in fancy dress, the handling of this portrait demonstrates the strong use of chiaroscuro that is the hallmark of much of Wright’s work, particularly in this early period of his career – a mastery of ephemeral atmosphere that induced Benedict Nicolson to dub him the ‘Painter of Light’. Wright is one of a select group of British eighteenth-century artists whose work transcends national boundaries and speaks to a wider global sensibility. His greatest paintings, such as An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (National Gallery, London), The Orrery (Derby Museums and Art Gallery) and A Grotto in the Kingdom of Naples with Banditti (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), have become icons of British art the world over.
We are grateful to Brian Allen, Lucy Bamford, Alex Kidson and Martin Postle for their assistance with the cataloguing of this lot. Dr Allen, who has seen the painting first-hand, dates it to circa 1765–68 and notes a number of areas that are characteristic of Wright’s handling, such as the dotted application of highlights in the gold embroidery in the turban and the frogging on the coat. He suggests an attribution to Wright, with some reservations on account of the surface condition of the work and the discoloured varnish. Both Kidson and Postle tentatively support the attribution to Wright on the basis of a photograph and independently suggested it could be an early self-portrait, painted at a time when the artist had few close imitators or students. All support the identification of the sitter as Joseph Wright. Lucy Bamford, Senior Curator at Derby Museum and Art Gallery, has also drawn a parallel between this painting and another portrait of Wright, circa 1774–76, in which the sitter is again depicted wearing a turban, once thought to be by Wright but now attributed to his friend and pupil Richard Hurleston (Yale Centre for British Art, New Haven), who accompanied Wright to Italy in 1773.
1 The painting was thought to be a variant of Reynolds’ portrait of Marchi in the Royal Academy, in which the sitter is depicted in profile, wearing a similar turban and the same hussar style gold frogged and fur-lined jacket (or Pelisse). See Mannings 2000, text vol., pp. 326–27, cat. no. 1219, reproduced plates vol., p. 158, fig. 77.
2 See J. Egerton, Wright of Derby, Tate exh. cat., London 1990, p. 111, cat. no. 54.
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