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  • Sensibility and ScienceMotherhood and the Gendering of Knowledge in Two Mezzotints after Joseph Wright of Derby
  • Louise Siddons (bio)

True Wit consists in the Resemblance of Ideas,” wrote Joseph Addison in 1711. His essay, titled “True and False Wit,” began with a quotation from John Locke in which the philosopher emphasized the distance between wit and reason. “Men who have a great deal of Wit,” Addison quoted, “have not always the clearest Judgment, or deepest Reason.”1 Eighteenth-century artists, printmakers, and publishers often exploited what they understood to be the inherent wittiness of mezzotint.2 Structurally related to linguistic wit, the specifically visual wit of mezzotint derived from its use primarily as a reproductive medium and was expressed through a range of doublings, pairings, mistranslations, metaphors, and transformations. It is particularly striking that throughout the eighteenth century this wittiness was often gendered and put to work to undermine claims of rationalism and reason. In this essay I investigate two mezzotints after paintings by Joseph Wright of Derby, published in London by John Boydell in 1769, that demonstrate an unprecedented level of gendered visual wit. A Philosopher Giving a Lecture on the Orrery, engraved by William Pether in 1768 (fig. 1), and A Philosopher shewing an Experiment on the Air Pump, engraved by Valentine Green in 1769 (fig. 2), both depict an extended family group in a darkened interior, focused on a scientific demonstration. In each print, an elderly male scientist-philosopher directs the action as three generations look on. Ostensibly deployed in the service of an exploration of science, education, and wonder, the wittiness of the two mezzotints reveals the instability of eighteenth-century British scientific epistemology when it came into contact with gendered expectations regarding marriage and childbirth. Boydell’s decision to publish the two prints together in his 1769 collection of prints engraved “after the most capital paintings in England,” and the status of the “experiments” Wright depicted as entertainments rather than innovations, encourage us to read these mezzotints as cultural metaphors rather than scientific documents.3 Critical to my rereading of these mezzotints after [End Page 124]

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Fig 1.

William Pether after Joseph Wright of Derby, A Philosopher Giving a Lecture on the Orrery, 1768. Mezzotint engraving, 48 x 57.8 cm (sheet).

Copyright © The Trustees of the British Museum. All rights reserved.

[End Page 125]

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Fig 2.

Valentine Green after Joseph Wright of Derby, A Philosopher Shewing an Experiment on the Air Pump, 1769. Mezzotint engraving, 48 x 50.5 cm (sheet). Museum purchase, Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts Endowment Fund.

Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

[End Page 126]

Wright is an acknowledgment of the ways in which the transformation into print also transformed the potential audience for these images, and thus their reception and interpretation.4

I first came to these prints with what I thought was a simple question: Why is the mother absent from these intimate family groups? Scholarly answers to that question have typically been dismissive, treating Wright’s compositions as simply illustrative of a social fact. The art historian David Solkin, for example, has suggested: “Bourgeois wives and mothers … were not supposed to put themselves on public display, nor to indulge in preoccupations that might distract them from their domestic duties—so it would have been improper for Wright to show them (though not single females) attending scientific lectures.”5 Careful analysis of Wright’s compositions, however, especially as they are reproduced in mezzotint, reveals that far from being an accident of social history, the absent mother is at the center of the images’ meaning. She was, moreover, at the heart of an intricate web of cultural conversations in the mid-eighteenth century that encompassed not only gender, marriage, astronomy, and colonialism but also the nature of truth, scientific knowledge, and the power over life and death.

Reproductive prints were a vital tool for creating artistic celebrity, as painter Joshua Reynolds acknowledged when, upon seeing James McArdell’s mezzotints after his work, he declared, “By this man I shall be immortalized.”6 Unsurprisingly, painters famous for their portraits of women eagerly...


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