In the first decades of Mr. Wright’s career, he had a handful of local showings that earned respectful reviews if little commercial success. Of his solo show at Washington’s Gallery Marc in 1971, Washington Post journalist Meryle Secrest singled out his work “Mary Reading the Funnies,” which depicted the artist’s wife sitting near a window thoroughly absorbed in the comics pages.
Secrest noted his mastery of classical technique, adding that “what makes Wright’s work so interesting is that his grasp of tempera and oil engraving and etching techniques is coupled with rigorous taste and an instinctive sense of restraint.”
That sense of restraint and his preference for readily identifiable subject matter — his “ultrarealism,” as one critic called it — may have clashed with modern art that was more in vogue.
“It was the time of the ‘happenings,’ and there was toilet paper wrapped around the Corcoran’s ‘Bound Slave’ and foam poured down the grand staircase. I was out of step,” Mr. Wright later told The Post. “When people now ask me if I resented being left out, I tell them my art was nourishing me.”
Bearded, gregarious and fond of leather vests at the easel, Mr. Wright was nearing 50 and teaching art at George Washington University before his paintings and prints began to attract attention beyond the city’s artistic community.
The turning point was a 1981 showing at the Kennedy Galleries, a venerable Manhattan gallery space and private dealership. The display brought Mr. Wright his first brush of substantial commercial success, and the average price of his paintings vaulted overnight from $3,000 to $10,000, The Post reported. The Kennedy Galleries also began representing him.
He followed with solo exhibitions at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in the District, among other venues, and won notable commissions. His 1998 portrait of former U.S. House speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) was commissioned by the House of Representatives for the speaker’s gallery in the Capitol.
John Franklin Wright Jr. was born on Oct. 10, 1932. He graduated from Eastern High School in 1950 and from American University in 1954 with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts. On a fellowship in the late 1950s, he studied with art historian Bernard Berenson at his villa near Florence before receiving a master’s degree in art history from the University of Illinois in 1960.
Survivors include his wife of 63 years, the former Mary Dow, and his daughter, both of Washington; a sister; and a granddaughter.
Mr. Wright taught at GWU from 1970 to 2015, retiring as an emeritus professor of drawing and graphic art. After his prominent 1981 showings, his work continued to be bought for public and private collections, including by the National Gallery of Art. He retired from painting at 85 and had a one-man exhibition at the District’s Cosmos Club in 2019.
Over the years, he painted a homeless man and his dog near Gallery Place; his daughter at 13; trolley tracks on the streets of Washington; Pennsylvania Avenue as it looked in 1889 and 1919; F Street in 1900 and then in 1984; and “The Night We Won the Super Bowl,” an oil-on-linen rendering of a key moment in Washington sports history.
It shows Mr. Wright and his friends cheering in delight as John Riggins — at fourth-and-one in the fourth quarter of the 1983 Super Bowl — breaking loose for a 42-yard touchdown run to defeat the Miami Dolphins and win the first Super Bowl for the team then known as the Washington Redskins.
One of Mr. Wright’s more ambitious works — “Ninth Street: Polyptych,” painted between 1977 and 1980 — was a five-panel work showing the mammoth FBI headquarters looming over the seedy streetscape of Sunny’s Surplus and the Lone Star Beef House, as well as neon signs announcing “amusements” and “adult flicks.” He saw that iteration of Washington — eventually demolished to clean up the downtown’s image — as teeming with human and architectural authenticity.
“I’d decided to paint only those things that gave me pleasure, and they turned out to be a pleasure for others as well,” Mr. Wright told The Post. “With the big studio paintings, and the reaction of friends, I suddenly realized I’d hit on something — on subject matter that people could relate to. I knew something had happened, that my art, suddenly, was like no one else’s.”
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