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 John Michael Wright  (1617 - 1694)

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Lived/Active: England/Belgium      Known for: baroque portrait painting

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Ad Code: 3
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from Auction House Records.
Portrait of John Dryden (1631-1700), poet and dramatist, half-length, in a black coat and white shirt with gold fastenings, in a sculpted cartouche with a laurel leaf wreath
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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Please note: Artists not classified as American in our database may have limited biographical data compared to the extensive information about American artists.

John Michael Wright (May 1617 – July 1694) was a portrait painter in the Baroque* style. Described variously as English and Scottish, Wright trained in Edinburgh under the Scots painter George Jamesone, and acquired a considerable reputation as an artist and scholar during a long sojourn in Rome. There he was admitted to the Accademia di San Luca*, and was associated with some of the leading artists of his generation. He was engaged by Archduke Leopold Wilhelm of Austria, the governor of the Spanish Netherlands, to acquire artworks in Oliver Cromwell's England in 1655. He took up permanent residence in England from 1656, and served as court painter before and after the English Restoration. A convert to Roman Catholicism, he was a favourite of the restored Stuart court, a client of both Charles II and James II, and was a witness to many of the political maneuverings of the era. In the final years of the Stuart monarchy he returned to Rome as part of an embassy to Pope Innocent XI.

Wright is currently rated as one of the leading indigenous British painters of his generation, largely for the distinctive realism in his portraiture. Perhaps due to the unusually cosmopolitan nature of his experience, he was favoured by patrons at the highest level of society in an age in which foreign artists were usually preferred. Wright's paintings of royalty and aristocracy are included amongst the collections of many leading galleries today.

John Michael Wright, who at the height of his career would interchangeably sign himself "Anglus" or "Scotus", is of uncertain origin. The diarist John Evelyn called him a Scotsman, an epithet repeated by Horace Walpole and tentatively accepted by his later biographer, Verne. However, writing in 1700, the English antiquarian Thomas Hearne claims Wright was born in Shoe Lane, London and, after an adolescent conversion to Roman Catholicism, was taken to Scotland by a priest. A London birth certainly seems supported by a baptismal record, dated May 25, 1617, for a "Mighell Wryghtt", son of James Wright, described as a tailor and a citizen of London, in St Bride's Church, Fleet Street, London.

What is known is that, on April 6, 1636, the 19-year-old Wright was apprenticed to George Jamesone, an Edinburgh portrait painter of some repute. The Edinburgh Register of Apprentices records him as "Michaell, son to James W(right), tailor, citizen of London". The reasons for this move to Scotland are unclear, but may have to do with familial connections (his parents may have been London Scots or the advent of plague in London. During his apprenticeship, Wright is likely to have lodged at the High Street tenement near the Netherbow Gate that served as Jameson's workplace. The apprenticeship was contracted for five years, but may have been curtailed by Jamesone's imprisonment in late 1639. There is no record of any independent work by Wright from this period (his earliest known painting being a small portrait of Robert Bruce, 1st Earl of Ailesbury, painted in the early 1640s during his time in Rome).

It is also possible that Wright met his wife during his Scottish residency. Nothing is known of her, except from a statement of thirty years later which describes her as "related to the most noble and distinguished families of Scotland." If this is accurate, it may explain how Wright was later able to find aristocratic patronage. All that is known for certain is that Wright had at least one child by her, a son, Thomas.

There is evidence to suggest that Wright went to France following his apprenticeship; however his eventual destination was Italy.  It is possible that he arrived in Rome as early as 1642 in the entourage of James Alban Gibbes, a scholar of English descent, but he was certainly resident there from 1647. Although details of his time there are sketchy, his skills and reputation increased so much so that by 1648 he had become a member of the prestigious Accademia di San Luca. On February 10 of that same year he was elected to the Congregazione dei Virtuosi al Pantheon, a charitable body promoting the Roman Catholic faith through art, which hosted an annual exhibition in the Pantheon. Wright was to spend more than ten years in Rome. During that time he became an accomplished linguist as well as an established art connoisseur.

In 1654, after a decade in Rome, Wright traveled to Brussels where his abilities were recognized by Archduke Leopold Wilhelm of Austria then governor of the Spanish Netherlands. Leopold employed him not as an artist, but as an advisor on antiquities. Since the execution of Charles I in 1649, Leopold had been purchasing artworks from the royal collections and those of various aristocrats, and, against this background, commissioned Wright to travel to London and acquire further specimens.  On April 9, 1656, he passed through Dover and did not return to Italy, rather he was joined in England by his family soon after.

By the early 1660s Wright had established a successful studio in London, and was described by diarist John Evelyn as "the famous painter Mr Write". Later, the Great Plague of London drove Wright in 1665 out to countryside.  Ironically, in the next year, the Great Fire of London (1666) was to be of benefit to him, when he received one of the City of London's first new artistic commissions to paint twenty-two full length portraits of the so-called 'Fire Judges' (those appointed to assess the property disputes arising from the fire). These paintings, completed in 1670, hung in London's Guildhall until it was bombed during World War II; today only two (those of Sir Matthew Hale and Sir Hugh Wyndham) remain in the Guildhall Art Gallery*, the remainder having been destroyed or dispersed.

Charles II, who promoted a number of Roman Catholics at court, granted Wright a measure of royal art patronage. In 1661, soon after the coronation, he painted a formalized portrait of the monarch, seated in front of a tapestry representing the Judgement of Solomon, wearing St. Edward's Crown, the robes of the Garter, and carrying the orb and sceptre. Wright was also commissioned to paint an allegorical* ceiling for the King's bedchamber at Whitehall Palace, and he was further appointed in 1673 to the office of "picture drawer in ordinary", allowing him to exercise his right to sign his pictures "Pictor Regis". However, to his disappointment, he did not receive the coveted office of King's Painter, which was held in the 1660s by Sir Peter Lely alone.

Unlike Lely, who was knighted, Wright never received significant recognition from King Charles.  As antipathy towards Catholics intensified in London from the late 1670s, Wright spent more time working away from court. He painted six family portraits for Sir Walter Bagot of Blithfield in Staffordshire in 1676/7. In 1678, he removed to Dublin for a number of years, perhaps due to the anti-Catholic hysteria generated by Titus Oates's Popish Plot. Here, still styling himself "Pictor Regis", he painted The Ladies Catherine and Charlotte Talbot, which is today in the National Gallery of Ireland. He also painted two full-lengths portraits of costumed chieftains, the Sir Neil O'Neil (c. 1680), now in the Tate Collection*, and the Lord Mungo Murray (c.1683), now in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

In 1685, when the openly Roman Catholic James II ascended the throne, Wright was able to return to royal service. However, significantly, James did not employ Wright as an artist, but gave him the "time consuming and futile post" of steward on a diplomatic embassy.

Wright's career came to an end in 1688 with the expulsion of King James II during the Glorious Revolution. He seems to have accepted the inevitable end of his royal favour with the accession to the throne of the Protestant William of Orange. He lived on, in relative poverty, for a further six years until 1694. In March of that year, he made a will leaving his house in St Paul's parish to his niece Katherine Vaux. His collection of drawings, prints and books were left to his nephew, the painter Michael Wright; however a codicil to the will stated that the books were to be sold on behalf of his son Thomas, who was then abroad. The books were auctioned on June 4 and on August 1, 1694, John Michael Wright was buried at St Martin-in-the-Fields.

Much of the scholarly appreciation of Wright's work is fairly recent. In 1982, an exhibition of his work: ‘John Michael Wright – The King’s Painter’ – in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery – led to a renewed interest in his contributions, and the catalogue (edited by Sara Stevenson and Duncan Thomson) re-wrote and uncovered much of the known biographical details. New works continue to be discovered and previously known ones re-attributed to him.  Wright is now viewed as amongst the most successful of seventeenth-century Britain's indigenous artists, and is rated alongside contemporaries such as Robert Walker and William Dobson. One modern exhibition catalogue described him as "the finest seventeenth century British-born painter". Certainly, he was one of the few who painted the elite aristocracy of his day, and was responsible for some of the most magnificent royal portraiture surviving.

"John Michael Wright", Wikipedia, // (Accessed 8/30/2013)

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