June 5, 2016

An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump - Joseph Wright, 1768

This stunning painting depicts a natural philosopher, a forerunner of the modern scientist, recreating one of Robert Boyle's air pump experiments, in which a bird is deprived of air, before a varied group of onlookers. The group exhibits a variety of reactions, but for most of the audience scientific curiosity overcomes concern for the bird. The central figure looks out of the picture as if inviting the viewer's participation in the outcome.

The piece rewards closer study. The experiment itself and the setting in which it takes place are the main attractor but the people surrounding it provide an enormous amount of context. Their faces are positively dripping with emotion. Wright has each of them tell a story, each highlighting a different facet of man's evolving relationship with early science. The scared look on the little girl's face, the lovers who have no interest in anything but each other, the somewhat mysterious boy in the background (is he lowering or raising the cage or is he perhaps lowering the curtains, afraid of the outside world's reaction to man trying to unravel the mysteries of nature?) Subtext everywhere.

The politician and philosopher Edmund Burke, in his famous Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), tied natural philosophers to the French Revolution; he later wrote in his Letter to a Noble Lord (1796) that radicals who supported science in Britain "considered man in their experiments no more than they do mice in an air pump". In light of this comment, Wright's painting of the bird in the air pump, completed over twenty years earlier, seems particularly prescient.

Wright's phenomenal paintings caused a great stir at their time of creation for they replaced the traditional classical subject with one of a scientific nature . Wright's depiction of the awe produced by scientific "miracles" marked a break with traditions in which the artistic depiction of such wonder was reserved for religious events. To Wright the marvels of the technological age were as awe-inspiring as the subjects of the great religious paintings.

Joseph Wright (1734 - 1797) has been acclaimed as "the first professional painter to express the spirit of the Industrial Revolution". He is notable for his use of Chiaroscuro effect, which emphasizes the contrast of light and dark, and for his paintings of candle-lit subjects. His paintings of the birth of science out of alchemy, often based on the meetings of the Lunar Society, a group of very influential scientists and industrialists living in the English Midlands, are a significant record of the struggle of science against religious values in the period known as the Age of Enlightenment.

Other amazing works of his include;
> A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery
> The Alchemist in Search of the Philosopher's Stone
> An Iron Forge
> Vesuvius from Portici



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