Joseph Wright ‘of Derby’ (1734 – 1797), An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, 1768, oil on canvas, 183 x 244 cm, National Gallery of London.
We all want the advantages and benefits of scientific experiment, but at the same time there’s a part of us wary we will uncover something that can ultimately harm us. It is this tension that preoccupies Joseph Wright ‘of Derby’s’ An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, and one that is visibly etched on – most of (the lovers to the left clearly don’t give a…) – the spectators’ expressions. But what exactly is going on here? and who’s the character with the enviable mane of hair?
The character with the hair is a travelling scientist, giving a lecture on pneumatics. In this instance, the creation of a vacuum is being demonstrated by withdrawing air from a glass flask containing a cockatoo. While the bird flounders on death’s cusp, the scientist’s hand teasingly lingers over the stopcock, which if opened would flood the glass with oxygen, reviving the creature. Though rather than being a painting about death, or science as such, it is more literally about asthma. Joseph Wright was asthmatic, so the whole act of breathing for him was mysterious and precious. So mysterious and precious in fact he lends the painting a religious quality by adopting Caravaggio’s use of chiaroscuro. It’s no coincidence then that the glass jar on the table in front of the candle illuminating the scene contains – it has been argued – human lungs. The lasting impression being that life glows with mystery, while at the same time all its answers are staring us in the face. Except the lovers, of course, where they’re going they don’t need answers. ■ TA ‘of Norwich’