Art

Frame by Frame

Face to face with ‘The Old Man and Death’

Joseph Wright of Derby’s “The Old Man and Death”
Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art
Joseph Wright of Derby’s “The Old Man and Death”

HARTFORD — There are few more eccentric and arresting images in New England’s museums than this 18th-century painting by Joseph Wright of Derby. It hangs at the Wadsworth Atheneum.

Painted in 1773 by one of the most remarkable and admirable of all English artists, its subject is fairly self-evident: an old man recoils in horror before a skeleton. Since skeletons don’t as a rule walk around, we can assume that Wright meant it to represent death, which is coming for the poor man.

The story is drawn from a fable with the same title by Aesop: An old man, “bent double with age and toil,” is gathering sticks for a fire. Exhausted, he cries out: I cannot bear this life any longer! Ah, I wish Death would only come and take me!”

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Right on cue — zip! crackle! wha?! — the skeleton appears, bearing a menacing spear. “What wouldst thou, Mortal? I heard thee call me.”

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The old woodcutter pulls back from the ledge. “Please, sir,” he says, “would you kindly help me to lift this bundle of sticks onto my shoulder?”

The message, according to Aesop, is: “Be careful what you wish for. You may be sorry.” And Wright does a good job of illustrating this. But he also ratchets up everything in the picture to such a degree of optical intensity that it transcends ordinary allegory and approaches a weird kind of rapture.

Look at the almost crystalline light describing the texture of the crumbling stone wall, the bark of the tree, the yellow and green foliage, the pile of sticks.

Wright, who by this point in his career had methodically mastered (and in a couple of cases practically invented) one genre after another — from portraiture to candlelit scenes to moonlit scenes, and finally his dazzling scenes of science — was a great experimenter with technique.

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His attempt to find new ways to describe textures and unusual phenomena, both natural and unnatural, reached a crescendo in the early 1770s. He was pig-headed in his pursuit of his fixations, and quite indifferent, it would seem, to the market. No conventional buyer could possibly have wanted to take a work like this off his hands. But he wasn’t deterred.

Wright’s career, as the critic Richard Dorment has observed, was a textbook example of the effect of the Enlightenment on art. But Wright’s “obsession with the realistic appearance of what he saw in front of his eyes” was also inseparable from a feeling for, and a desire to express, the miraculous.

That phosphorescent, friable feeling — so integral to the gorgeously free-roaming curiosity that drove the early Enlightenment — was later industrialized, standardized, pummeled flat, everything weird and ineffable tamed. But there is nothing standardized about this painting.

Of course Enlightenment thinking was essentially utopian: constant, measurable progress toward a graspable goal. In science, medicine, politics, and business, we are the heirs to its many assumptions.

Joseph Wright of Derby is on hand to remind everyone that it’s not so straightforward. Death remains, as it always has, the big counter-utopia. It is the spoke in the wheel of the Enlightenment. Nothing you do, none of your generation’s contributions or improvements, none of the things you gather in to keep you warm, will last. Death will come for you, too.

THE OLD MAN AND DEATH

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By Joseph Wright of Derby

At Wadsworth Atheneum, 600 Main St., Hartford, 860-278-2670, www.thewadsworth.org

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.