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Joy of Museums

Museums, Art Galleries and Historical Sites

“An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump” by Joseph Wright of Derby

An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump by Joseph Wright of Derby, 1768

“An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump” by Joseph Wright of Derby

“An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump” by Joseph Wright of Derby depicts a gentlemen scientists or natural philosopher, as they were called during the Enlightenment, recreating of one of Robert Boyle’s air pump experiments, where a bird is deprived of air. The experiment is conducted before a group of onlookers, who show a variety of reactions, but for most of the audience, their scientific curiosity overcomes concern for the bird. The central figure looks out of the picture, inviting the viewer’s participation in the experiment. Aside from that of the children’s reaction, little sympathy is directed toward the bird.

This painting is only one of many candlelit scenes that Wright painted during the 1760s. The picture departed from the conventions of the time by depicting a scientific subject in a respectful way that formerly was reserved for paintings of historical or religious significance. Wright specialised in representing the Industrial Revolution and the scientific advances of the Enlightenment.

Joseph Wright

Joseph Wright was an English landscape and portrait painter. He was one of the first painters to express the spirit of the Industrial Revolution. Wright is notable for his emphasis on the contrast between light and dark, and, for his paintings of candle-lit subjects. His pictures of the birth of science are a significant record of the struggle of science against religious values in the period known as the Age of Enlightenment.

Scientific during the Enlightenment

Science played an important role during the 18th century of the Enlightenment during which writers and thinkers supported the sciences and favoured of the development of free speech and thought. Enlightenment science greatly valued empiricism and rational thought and was embedded in the Enlightenment ideal of advancement and progress.

Gentlemen scientists or also called natural philosopher introduced the public to many scientific theories and increased the popularity of science among the increasingly literate population. Scientific societies grew out of the Scientific Revolution as the creators of scientific knowledge in contrast to the scholasticism of the university. During the Enlightenment, learned societies became the cornerstone of organised science. A large number of official academies and societies were founded in Europe, and by 1789 there were over seventy formal scientific societies. The influence of science also began appearing more often in art, poetry and literature during the Enlightenment.

Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution was the transition to new manufacturing processes from about 1760 to the 1840s. This revolution included going from hand production methods to machines, the increasing use of steam power, the development of machine tools and the rise of the factory system. The Industrial Revolution marked a significant turning point in history as almost every aspect of daily life was influenced in some way.

Reflections

  • How effective was Wright in using the sharp contrasts between light and dark to achieve a sense of volume in modelling three-dimensional objects and figures in this painting?
  • Why has this striking scene in this painting been used as the cover illustration for a number of scientific books?

Exploring the National Gallery, London

An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump

  • Title:             An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump
  • Artist:           Joseph Wright of Derby
  • Year:             1768
  • Type:            Oil on canvas
  • Dimensions: 183 cm × 244 cm (72 in × 94 1⁄2 in)
  • Museum:      National Gallery, London

Joseph Wright of Derby

  • Artist:           Joseph Wright
  • Born:            1734 – Derby
  • Died:            1797 (aged 62) – Derby
  • Nationality:  English
  • Notable works:

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“Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity,
and I’m not sure about the former.”

– Albert Einstein

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Photo Credit: 1) Joseph Wright of Derby [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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