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Confronting Mortality

Joseph Wright of Derby’s The Old Man and Death (detail)

Confronting Mortality: Joseph Wright of Derby’s The Old Man and Death, an Iconic Painting from the Age of Enlightenment
March 25–June 7, 2020

The ancient fable of a tired old man who calls on Death but soon comes to regret his heedless decision becomes a poignant parable for the late eighteenth century. Wright of Derby showed the pivotal moment in this story when the old man realizes the tragic consequences of his desires. The power of reason and the ability to speak for oneself is questioned and mocked in this painting by the English artist. Reinforced by an unsettling landscape, piercing colors, and vigorous brushstrokes, The Old Man and Death is a metaphor of its time, a masterwork from the Age of Enlightenment.

Joseph Wright of Derby English, 1734—1797 The Old Man and Death, 1773

Above: Joseph Wright of Derby, The Old Man and Death, 1773. Oil on canvas. The Ella Gallup Sumner and Mary Catlin Sumner Collection Fund.