Looking at a Painting:Maria from Sterne, Joseph Wright

Elizabeth Jackaman looks at a painting ...Maria from Sterne, 1781 by Joseph Wright of Derby (1734–97)

This sweet young girl sits in a soft rural setting holding her flute, with her little dog at her feet looking up at her faithfully. This should be a happy, wholesome country scene, but the pose of this gentle figure suggests sadness: she sits on a grassy bank with her elbow on her crossed knee, her head resting on her hand as she looks dreamily ahead seeing nothing of her idyllic surroundings. Perhaps the autumnal tones and the gathering clouds give an extra hint of gloom: the good days and bright skies of summer are passing. How brilliantly an artist can paint a mood into a picture. Joseph Wright’s portraits in landscape settings are familiar to us, his sitters exuding health and radiance, wearing fine clothing in rich colours – materials that are a hallmark of his style and which suggest the comfort and wealth of his sitters. This painting, though, is not a straightforward portrait, but a scene from literature. Maria is a sad character from Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey (published 1768). She has lost her mind after being abandoned by her lover, and while roaming in the countryside is met by Parson Yorick on his travels through France. Novels and poetry full of acute feelings were popular in the late 18th century. In painting a tragic heroine Wright was following this contemporary trend in which melancholy figures find solace in nature. Maria sits here with her pipe upon which she had played sweet, plaintive melodies. Her very position denotes melancholy, known and often copied from the German painter Albrecht D�rer’s engraving, Melancholia I of 1514; the mourning pose also derives from ancient tomb relief scupture. Although presented prominently and life-sized, Maria’s form is painted in soft focus, with no hard edges or strong outlines. Her face is in complete profile against grey cloud, lips slightly parted; she gazes vacantly from clear blue eyes. Her flesh has the cool, precious texture of a china doll. Her hair is piled up, not high as in the grand fashion of the time, but held neatly by a greenish ribbon, while a loose strand falls over her shoulder in a whispy ringlet. Maria’s plain, classical dress was stylish for day wear and reminds us of the grandeur of ancient statuary (funerary reliefs again). A drape flows down her long, elegant back and over her thigh; its pale green, like her sash, is a colour denoting tristesse. She holds her recorder and her dog’s light leash, both clearly depicted against the white dress. The little Bolognese dog, Silvio, perhaps Maria’s only friend, looks up sympathetically at his pitiful mistress. The trees in the countryside are still in full leaf. Immediately behind Maria the bark of two strong trunks has silvery highlights, similar to that of silver birch, but apart from that every tree is quite non-specific (Sterne states that Maria sits at the foot of a poplar, but I am unconvinced of the artist’s faithfulness to the text.) The clusters of golden-brown leaves are painted in a blotchy manner, thick impasto, in contrast to the girl’s smooth hair and skin; the lower leaves seem almost fungal in their presentation. Large plant foliage grows in the foreground, tempting the viewer to identify it: I had the idea it could be butterburr, but generally, as in the type of trees here, Wright’s oil paintings do not demonstrate botanical precision. Opposite this a rippling stream is just visible: ‘A small brook ran at the foot of the tree.’ Wright has followed Sterne’s description of Yorick’s encounter with  this sorrowful girl. Dashes of white paint draw attention to flickering light on the water. Rolling country in the distance is softened with haze, and the far background reaches the horizon in grey mist. A small area of light sky above gives some sense of optimism. On the whole the tonality is restrained and the figure of Maria blends with that colour harmony with no vivid contrasts. Although this is not strictly a portrait, Wright needed a model for Maria. It is thought that Mrs Mary Bassano posed for him. She had married into a Derby family whose forebears were said to have come from Italy as musicians to the Court of Henry VIII. Maria was painted as a companion piece to Edwin from Dr Beattie’s ‘Minstrel’ completed a few years earlier. Edwin is portrayed as a dreamy shepherd boy whose image is faithful to the poetic source (‘The Minstrel; or, the Progress of Genius’, a long poem by Dr James Beattie, 1771). Edwin was sold to a patron from Wakefield, but he did not buy Maria, which remained in Wright’s possession until he died.  Although it is sad that this delightfully complementary pair of pictures have never hung permanently together, it is a pleasure for us to see Maria so well placed in the dining room at Pickford’s House, Friargate in Derby.

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