The Wright Family
During his brief life, Joseph Wright became the first American-born student to study at the Royal Academy Schools in London, made the first sculptural likeness of George Washington (whom he also painted from life), caroused while studying in Paris, and survived a shipwreck off the coast of Maine. He was assisted in many of his adventures by his mother, Patience Lovell Wright, a flamboyant modeler in wax and the first known American sculptress, who had emigrated to Europe in search of famous clients. The Academy's painting is Wright's final work, begun in the summer of 1793 while the artist and his family were living at 21 Sassafras Street (now Race Street), awaiting his confirmation as first engraver to the U. S. Mint. Its composition, featuring Wright gesturing toward his growing family, reveals its indebtedness to the English conversation piece, as does its rather grandiose (and improbable) vaulted architecture and drapery swag. Yet for all that, the tenderness of the artist for his family is apparent in the sweetness of expression with which Sarah Wright regards her youngest daughter as well as in the directly curious gaze of little Joseph Wright, Jr. Tragically, both Sarah and Joseph Wright perished in a yellow fever epidemic during 1793, leaving the portrait unfinished and the young children orphaned.