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Saturday Volcano Art: Joseph Wright of Derby, ‘Vesuvius from Portici’ (c.1774-6) 3 October 2009

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Joseph Wright of Derby, 'Vesuvius from Portici' (c.1774-6)

The English painter Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797) visited Italy in 1773-5, and was in Naples from early October to early November of 1774. As it happens, this was a quiet interlude in Vesuvius’s eruptive history and Wright did not witness the volcano in eruption, but for an artist drawn to the dramatic interplay of light and darkness, and fascinated by the physical processes that governed the working of the universe, the erupting volcano was an obvious choice of subject, and Wright returned to it more than thirty times in the course of his career.

The picture illustrated here, ‘Vesuvius from Portici’, was painted between 1774 and 1776 and is perhaps Wright’s single most dramatic visual homage to the power and majesty of the volcano in eruption. Portici is at the western foot of the volcano on the shore of the Bay of Naples, so we are looking due east towards the summit of Vesuvius, which is about 8 km away. On the left is the remains of Monte Somma; on the right lava flows descend the flanks of the volcano towards the sea, setting vegetation ablaze.

Wright’s pictures are commonly organized around a single dramatic source of light, and here the volcano itself blazes like a huge furnace, roaring into the sky amid a swirling mass of cloud that draws the viewer’s eye inexorably towards the focus of the eruption – we seem to be looking down a tunnel of fire and fumes. The little bright flecks visible on the painting are not flaws in the reproduction, but representations of glowing fragments of ash falling to earth. On the left the moon rises, casting a paler glow upon the clouds and reminding us that everything we see in the picture – the volcano with its fires, the fertile landscape, the turbulent sky – is part of the same never-ending natural cycle of destruction and renewal.

As with paintings of Vesuvius by other artists, Wright has exaggerated the steepness of the volcano’s slopes (compare this modern photograph, taken from the approximate viewpoint of the painting), but in other ways he has been at pains to use a realistic mode of representation, with the landscape of rock formations, foliage, farms and houses modelled in lucid detail. Wright’s work engages in complex ways with scientific enquiry, and here he shows the volcano in the landscape as something awe-inspiring for itself, not as a mystical vision or an expression of divine power: his concern is with nature as something that moves the human spirit, but is also open to human understanding.

For all ‘Saturday volcano art’ articles: Saturday volcano art « The Volcanism Blog.

Further reading

Joseph Wright of Derby at Revolutionary Players.
Vesuvius from Portici = Awesome Volcano Painting by Marshall Astor

The Volcanism Blog

Comments

1. Derek McCrea - 7 October 2009

It is amazing that painting was painted so long ago and it still looks great.


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