This picture is a copy of a painting by Joseph Wright owned by the Huntington Library in San Marino, dated 1767. In the painting the boys are testing the capacity of a pig’s bladder. Children blowing bubbles are often a symbol of the transience of human life and although it has not been possible to identify the exact source of the subject, it is known that the theme of children with bladders was popular in many seventeenth century Netherlandish studios. It also highlights Wright’s interest in the contemporary response to the natural world, that of the Sublime and Beautiful, as defined by Edmund Burke in his 1757 treatise of aesthetics, according to which our idea of beauty is understood by causal structures. These types of paintings were painted to be sold on the London market, mainly at exhibitions. This particular one was engraved a number of times by engravers such as Peter Perez Burdett in 1773, being perhaps the subject of the first pure aquatint made in England.
Joseph Wright was born in Derby and trained in the studio of Thomas Hudson in London in 1751-53 and later again in 1756-57. He was mainly based in Derby but later settled in Liverpool where he made his reputation as a portrait painter, thus being the first quality painter to prefer the provinces to London or Bath. In the 1760’s he joined the ‘Lunar Society’, a group of scientists and philosophers who owed their name from their habit of meeting monthly on the Monday nearest to the full moon and discussed the latest developments in science. It is at that time that he became renowned for his depiction of experiments in candlelit subjects. In 1774 and 1775 while in Rome and Naples, he witnessed an eruption of Vesuvius, which became a favourite theme in later paintings. He was also influenced by Vernet in terms of lighting in the landscape. After a few months in Bath he returned to Derby where he spent the last years of his life, suffering from ill health. In 1784 he was elected RA but declined the honour. His most famous paintings are the ‘Coke Family’ (c.1781-82) and the Orrery (1766). Joseph Wright was one of the most admired and influential painters of the 18th century.
EGERTON, Judy, Wright of Derby, Tate Gallery, 1990
NICHOLSON, Benedict, Joseph Wright of Derby, 2 vol., 1968
WATERHOUSE, Ellis, British 18th Century Painters, Vol.2, 1991