An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump is a 1768 Baroque painting by English artist Joseph Wright of Derby.
An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump Analysis
An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768) is an unforgettable painting by Joseph Wright of Derby depicting a modern scientific experiment in the highly dramatic manner traditionally reserved for religion, myth, and history.
What we are seeing in An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump
As the title tells us, an experiment is being performed on a bird, a grey cockatiel. The animal is trapped inside a tuberous glass vessel standing on top of a lintel through which — we realize because of the cable we see to its left — the air is injected as well as extracted by means of a tube. The entire structure is standing on a polished table inside what looks like a familiar room.
The experiment is in fact surrounded by several men, who are likely engineers or natural philosophers, but also a woman and several children. We readily assume that the air pump of which the experiment consists is being tested in a family home.
As the boy to the right, who is pulling the curtains, helps us realize, it is night outside (the moon that we espy being perhaps a token of the Lunar Society, a social club within which the artist enjoyed connections).
A candle, situated beyond the glowing bowl in the lower middle of the painting, is the single, strong source of light in the scene. It is by means of that candle that a strong chiaroscuro permeates the picture, opposing areas of light to areas of pitch dark, giving strong characterizing lines to almost every human face, and excluding from sight all the marginal spaces.
Chiaroscuro – dark and light
The painting is therefore one of Joseph Wright’s candlelit studies, a specialty of his repertoire. It is unknown how much of Wright’s inspiration and technical knowledge for this finely executed chiaroscuro piece derives from any knowledge of continental precursors.
In relation to the light, it should also be noted that some critics have supposed it to emanate from, or to be amplified by, the bowl of liquid (which might be sulfurous) on the table.
Analogies in An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump
This unnaturally strong light might, furthermore, represent the Light of Reason, a symbol of the Englightenment, or the light of Revelation, and to be thus a symbol of knowledge but also of God, He who holds the ultimate power to kill and resurrect living things.
In the same religious connection, the grey cockatiel has been noted as a possible evocation of the Holy Spirit, traditionally represented as a white dove.
Light, as well as the direction in which the people in the picture point us, tells us where the center of interest is to be found: on top of the maroon tripod standing on the table. The cardinal event is doubtless what is happening or is about to happen to the unfortunate bird trapped inside that glass. And yet, we may rightly wonder what is the true subject matter of Joseph Wright’s famous painting.
The figures in An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump
Most viewers might in fact be first drawn to a study not of the grey cockatiel inside the contraption but of the human reactions to the air pump experiment. We cannot help but see that the two young girls to the right — just like, in a different key, the young boy (their brother?) — are disturbed by the cruelty of the adult game that they have been allowed to witness.
They seem to know that the bird will be suffocated by the progressive removal of air from the flask, perhaps with the intent of being quickly revived by a sudden blow of oxygen.
An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump shows us the existentially deep difference that abides between the compassionate innocence of children and the self-absorbed stolidity of adults.
The man on the right, possibly the young girls’ father, is encouraging them with an earnest face to accept the unavoidable suffering of the animal, presumably because what is being done to it is interesting, useful, or educational.
Distracted by their childish emotions, they are missing out on an opportunity to learn, he might be telling them. His companion standing in the middle, the likely orchestrator of this event, is explaining his machine, so rapt in his explanation that he is in fact looking at nobody, and nobody is looking at him.
The sitting men, one to the left and the other to the right, have eyes only for the machine: one is looking somewhere about the stalk, the other at the base.
The two figures on the far left, who are in fact vaguely interacting, communicate (through their faces) peaceable interest in the proceedings, with the man appearing somewhat awed. Similarly, the young man is sitting on the left.
The meaning of An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump
The true subject of the painting might therefore be human nature as it is affected by the material creations and discoveries of the Industrial and the scientific age.
It is human nature that is eminently confident in its ability to tamper with life, and only children, still uncalloused by indifference, bear the instinctive insight that what is being done is horrible.
The painting encapsulates therefore a powerful objection to the impious spirit of the Age of Enlightenment.
Interestingly, it was intended by the artist to be shown to an educated, science-loving public. It was purchased by Benjamin Bates, a social eminence and a physician.
The Vacuum Pump
The centerpiece of Joseph Wright’s composition is the vacuum pump standing upright in the middle.
Invented in 1650, the air pump was, in Wright’s time, occasionally displayed as an amusement piece. In Great Britain, it was Robert Boyle, the father of modern chemistry, who popularised the knowledge of air pumps by experimenting with one soon after its invention and publishing the results.
As Boyle too had experimented with various small animals, the effect of airlessness on birds was no mystery by the time Wright painted his scene, a full century later.
This reinforces the impression that what we are witnessing in the Experiment is the satisfaction of curiosity not too dissimilar to that of the child who tortures insects out of boredom.
What is peculiar is that a cockatiel, a rare and expensive bird, is used in this likely fatal experiment. Its beauty and rarity may be intended to strengthen the impression of outrage and waste.
The Realism style
Joseph Wright’s scene is depicted in excellent Realist detail, most notably in the people’s clothes, the objects on the table, and the air pump itself. Along the surface of the table, we observe a pocket watch, held by the man on the left and used to estimate how long the bird will struggle.
On the opposite extreme of the table are the copper pieces known as the Magdeburg hemisphere, which can be applied to shut two sides of a bowl and show how tightly they cling when the air is sucked out.
More ominously, we see a strange greyish shape inside a bowl of semi-transparent liquid just in front of the candle. Its vague resemblance to a skull might disturb us as well as evoke an awareness of death, or vanitas.
Comparing An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump with A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery
The gloomy significance of this painting is perhaps evidenced by nothing so much as a contrast with another candlelit scene from Joseph Wright’s repertoire: A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery (1768).
Contemporary to the Experiment, this highly analogous scene carries an entirely opposite emotional and coloristic charge. The light is fiery and soft, the child whose face we observe is merry, and no one else is afflicted by anything worse than thoughtfulness either. No form of life is paying the price of human curiosity, as if to suggest that astronomy is a more humane discipline than natural philosophy in its narrowest domain.
An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump was likely created by Wright without a commission and was then purchased by Benjamin Bates. Though the painting attracted public interest at the time and is today considered a great British artwork, it was not highly regarded during Wright’s lifetime. This is due to the artist not belonging to the gentry, to insufficient championing by critics, and to its subject matter being “common”, i.e. not religious, aristocratic, or historical.
Location of An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump
More or less since its acquisition, in 1863, by the National Gallery in London, where the painting hangs today, it has been known as a masterpiece of British Realism and Joseph Wright of Derby’s most renowned painting. It is also considered one of the Masterpieces of the National Gallery.