In the galleries of the Treasures of Kenwood House exhibition, where carefully poised ladies and gallant gentlemen are an expression of 18th-century sophistication, one painting stands apart: Two Girls Dressing a Kitten by Candlelight by Joseph Wright of Derby. The painting shows two small girls around a candlelit table, fastening a doll’s hat to the head of a bewildered kitten.
Joseph Wright (1737–1797) is an artist also featured in Rienzi’s collection. Identified by the Midlands manufacturing town where he established his career—and not to be confused with the American 18th-century painter working in England under the same name—he is generally known as “Wright of Derby,” and was one of the most successful British artists who worked outside of London during the 18th century.
Wright of Derby’s Portrait of a Gentleman hangs in Rienzi’s Dining Room. Although the sitter is unknown, the gentleman’s status is made clear by his lavish costume. He wears powdered hair, a brilliant cherry-colored velvet coat, a white satin waistcoat edged in gold, lace cuffs, a black neckband, and a black three-cornered hat with rich gold braiding. Wright demonstrates a brilliant ability to render different materials. The same is true for the small adornments of Two Girls: the folds of cloth, the lace trim, even the detail of their doll’s bodice.
The artist also became known for his mastery of dramatic lighting—and it seems Wright sought extreme lighting effects wherever he could find them. Demonstrating the glow of a candle was an opportunity to advertise his skills, but it also imbued ordinary (and in at least one case, adorable) subjects with a luminous sense of awe. James Northcote, a contemporary of Wright’s and another painter represented in Rienzi’s collection, called him “the most famous painter now living for candle-lights."
During a time when artists were defined within a single genre, like portraiture or landscape, Wright appears to transition easily between fields. For example, several rooms down from the Treasures of Kenwood House at the MFAH, two daring landscape views by Wright of Derby hang in a gallery devoted to the Blaffer Collection. Rienzi’s Gentleman is a formal portrait, whereas Kenwood’s Two Girls is a considered a “fancy picture,” a term coined in the late 18th century for paintings that were neither portraits nor historical or literary subjects. The commonality between these paintings is the zealous, almost scientific, attention to detail. Each pearl in a necklace, the small dimple of skin on a young girl’s shoulder, the lines of current on a moonlit river—all receive equal consideration. The sly smiles of Rienzi’s gentleman and Kenwood’s girl share something in common as well, as though inviting the viewer in on a joke.
It should be mentioned that art historians have noted veiled meanings in Two Girls Dressing a Kitten. What first appears to be a sentimental scene belongs to a tradition of allegories on the cruelty of children, and of images of young girls as charmers and victims on the brink of womanhood. I prefer to enjoy the fact that small girls have made playthings of tiny kittens for hundreds of years (and as a recent owner of a kitten myself, I’m particularly susceptible).
The works of Wright of Derby at the MFAH are intriguing examples of 18th-century English painting, and we invite you to Rienzi for a closer look. Poor kitten.