About a Painting - Joseph Wright’s ‘Grotto in the Gulf of Salerno, Italy, Moonlight’

Grotto in the Gulf of Salerno, Italy, Moonlight by Joseph Wright

Grotto in the Gulf of Salerno, Italy, Moonlight by Joseph Wright - Credit: Archant

Jonathan Wallis, head of museums, Derby Museums Trust discusses Joseph Wright’s ‘Grotto in the Gulf of Salerno, Italy, Moonlight’

Joseph Wright of Derby will forever be linked to the hometown where he lived for most of his life but we rarely see even glimpses of it in his paintings. We are much more likely to see landscapes, both as paintings in their own right and in the background of portraits, that reflect the two places most influential on his work: the Derbyshire countryside and Italy. It is the landscapes of Italy for which he is probably most famous.

Landscape is a subject Wright took to following success with scientific subjects. It grows in importance from about 1770, and particularly from 1773 when he departed for Italy on honeymoon with his new wife Hannah or Anna Swift. He certainly paints subjects of a much more romantic nature from this point in his life.

In Italy he concentrates on a few subjects that he continued to paint for the rest of his life. Vesuvius in eruption, which he saw in 1774, is the most popular but views from grottoes and caverns are painted in great numbers. Derby Museums care for two of these: ‘Bridge through a Cavern’ painted in 1791, and ‘Grotto in the Gulf of Salerno, Italy, Moonlight’ from the 1780s.

The ‘Grotto in the Gulf of Salerno’ is one of the paintings most recently acquired by the museum and I was involved in raising the money to purchase the picture for the people of Derby to enjoy back in 2001. It is part of an important group of pictures that were copied from two drawings Wright made in the Gulf of Salerno near Naples in 1774.

The drawings still exist; the one used for this painting is in the collection of the National Trust for Scotland. While in Italy Wright wrote that he had been drawing from life subjects ‘to remove any doubt in regard to particular objects as I take them as faithfully as I can.’ This letter is on the back of the Girandola drawing which can be seen in the Joseph Wright Study Room at The Museum and Art Gallery.

The painting shows a view from the grotto out into the Gulf of Salerno with a distant 16th century watchtower. Grottoes like this were many along the coast and watchtowers could be seen every few miles along the coast. The action of the sea has made it impossible to identify the exact location of this cave but it is undoubtedly a place which Wright drew from life.

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The grotto paintings show differing times of day, the morning, the evening or like this one at night. They all have stories attached to them, some of which are obvious and others slightly hidden. The ‘banditti’ in one of the paintings are almost certainly hiding either themselves or their ill-gotten treasure. Perhaps it is their boat we see disappearing from the cave in this composition? The simple effect that Wright uses to show the reflection of the moon on the surface of the sea is used to great effect in drawing the eye towards the boat. Much of the painting looks black but on closer inspection you can see the detail of the rock on the inside of the cave.

Wright may be best known for his scientific paintings and his use of light but this painting and the others in the grotto series are magnificent examples of the painter’s skill and certainly something that helps to give Wright his reputation as one of the greatest artists of the 18th century.

The painting can be seen in the Wright Inspired exhibition at the Museum and Art Gallery in Derby until July.