Either this painter I’m about to talk about had a psychotic break and split into two people – one a man of science and the other one of uncertainty – or else he came that way.

Praising to the skies

Much is being made of a painting now on view at the Derby Museum. The Observer’s art critic Laura Cumming says that Joseph Wright’s “A Philosopher Giving That Lecture on the Orrery,” is so great that it’s worth the visit to the gallery just for that alone.

Certainly, “A Philosopher Giving That Lecture on the Orrery” was special in the 18th century when it was made.

Painters back then didn’t choose the world of science as their subject.

And Wright did it in a very dramatic way, using high contrast light and dark. No surprise here. He was a big fan of Caravaggio.

But, while Wright describes people’s astonishment at the revelations in a science lecture, it’s hard to understand Cumming’s astonishment. It’s as if she identifies with the audience in the painting gathered around a model of the solar system.

It’s as if Cumming identified with the two children captivated by the toy model, or else she saw herself as the scholar intensely taking notes at the lecture, or maybe the young woman looking bewildered by the strangeness of it all.

But if I were to single out an astonishing painting by Wright, it’d be “The Old Man and Death” at the Wadsworth Atheneum.

What you’d see is an aged figure cringes before the sight of a skeleton – presumably the embodiment of the end of life. You’d see a man of science afraid.

Fearing death

The difference between “A Philosopher Giving That Lecture on the Orrery” and “The Old Man and Death” is so vast, that you almost think that Wright didn’t paint them both.

Missing in “The Old Man and Death” are the strong contrasts between light and shade that mark “A Philosopher Giving That Lecture on the Orrery.” The drama of Death approaching to take the old man comes solely from the action of the figures.

And here’s the thing. “The Old Man and Death” was painted when he was 40. Wright didn’t die for another 22 years.

The only clue to his excruciating fear of death is that he suffered from asthma in his middle years.

Obviously, Wright borrowed both the title of his painting and the story line from Aesop’s Fable, but with some telling change. While Aesop had the old man call for Death and carry on a length conversation with him, Wright showed the man shocked by Death’s appearance, and downright terrorized.

Missing from Wright’s painting is the chat when Death asked what the old man wanted when he called him to his side and the man answered, “Please, sir, would you kindly help me lift this load of sticks on to my shoulder?”

Clearly the old man was unafraid of Death in Aesop’s tale, and asked him for more time before his end comes.

Naturally, Death had the last word saying that there can be no more delays, noting that this was not the first time the old man asked for a reprieve.

Incredibly, the old guy argued. All of which is so much pleasantry next to the terror that Wright pictured. His asthma attacks must have been awfully scary to him to paint this picture.