Joseph Wright of Derby - The experiment with a bird in the air pump

by Alexandra Tuschka


Here we are immediately caught up in a real spectacle: kindly, the other people have left us a place to catch a good view of the experiment, which has already reached its climax. Brightly illuminated by a candle standing behind a glass bulb, we first have to classify what we are about to see. Already our eye is caught by the poor little bird - a crested cockatoo - which is struggling for its life here. The air pump extracts oxygen from the large glass container.


The construct goes back to the inventor Robert Boyle, who developed this experiment in the 1660s. At the time the work was created, it was already about 100 years old. Nevertheless, it has lost none of its fascination, here it is literally staged, on the one hand by the painter, on the other hand by the scientist on the canvas.

Those present react quite differently to what is shown. On the far left, a young pair of lovers has eyes only for each other. Their faces, defined by the strong chiascouro, turn lovingly to each other. They have taken advantage of the evening spectacle to secretly get closer to each other. The dim light makes the scene almost romantic. Two more people on the left front have their backs turned to us. A boy leans forward and wants to watch everything closely. He has no sympathy, but is filled with great interest in the experiment. In front of him sits a man with a stopwatch. There is no expression on his face. In the center, our gaze falls on the experiment director. He has flowing, gray hair, a narrow face and looks at us. With one hand, he points questioningly at us, the other will or will not open the valve. It is as if he is asking us whether the bird should live or die. With his red coat in the gloomy scene, he also reminds us of a magician. The strong chiaroscuro makes his appearance all the more drastic. Like a spotlight in the theater, we see only the most important things illuminated. What is also magical is that he makes something invisible visible; for the people of the time, the components of air were not yet so well explored and were a great mystery. Furthermore, Wright enhances the tense scene with clever details, such as the reflection of the table or the animal lungs that are in the milky container on it. They all support the successful staging of the man. The two so-called "Magdeburg hemispheres" are also on the table. A simple but impressive experiment on air pressure was probably carried out with them beforehand.

On the right side of the picture, a group of three is brightly illuminated. One could assume that the bird belongs to the two girls, who are probably sisters, the younger of whom cannot decide between looking towards and away, the older already burying her face in her hands. The father tries to explain the experiment to the two children in a matter-of-fact way. Another man can be seen in profile in front on the right. He has lowered his gaze and seems to be pondering. He has even taken off his glasses, which are now in his right hand. Possibly he asks himself the question whether a moral border is crossed here. Is a person allowed to decide about life and death in this way? Where would that lead? Further in the shadow and apart from the group a boy is recognizable, who pulls up or lets down the cage at a rope. Here the viewer is asked to complete the outcome of the scene in his mind's eye. So the decision is literally ours to make and is cleverly held in abeyance by Wright. If we decide to let the bird live, the man instantly turns on the valve, the bird recovers, and the cage is ready. If we decide otherwise, it may be too late and the empty bird cage, now no longer needed, is pulled up by the boy.

The 18th century, the age of enlightenment and scientific revolution, also produced so-called "traveling scientists" or "natural scientists". These demonstrated numerous experiments in the home environment and needed few utensils to do so. We are here in an interior, through the strong chiascouro is not clear where exactly this should be. These strong contrasts are reminiscent of the Utrecht Caravaggists such as Gerrit van Honthorst, who, however, could only have been known to Wright - if at all - through prints.


Here the moon is recognizable as a second source of light, possibly with further significance in terms of content: for Wright had good contacts to the "Lunar society", although he was not a member, he moved in highly educated, elite circles. Among these were Richard Arkwright and the grandfather of Charles Darwin, Edward Darwin. This society often met during the full moon. This may have had practical reasons: for a long time the moon was the only source of light at night and offered a little security on the - possibly late - way home. His closeness to these scientifically interested circles is also evident in many of the painter's other motifs. It was here that Wright achieved great fame. However, since he lived outside London and specialized in these subjects, his influence on other artists was very slight. Thus, his so-called "noctures" or "candlelight" paintings are almost unprecedented in the English artistic landscape.


Joseph Wright of Derby - The Experiment with a Bird and the Air Pump

Oil on canvas, 1768, 183 x 244 cm, National Gallery, London


Experiment to demonstrate the air pressure, Magdeburg hemispheres

Drawing, 1672


Gerrit van Honthorst - The False Players

Oil on canvas, 17th century, 125 x 190 cm, Museum, Wiesbaden, Germany

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