January Painting of the Month

Joseph Wright of Derby’s 1768 painting “An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump

Covid 19. We now appear to be doing the hard yards with the pandemic, rolling out the new vaccine. Science can be so exciting and yet so concerning. My January Painting of the Month emphasises this most brilliantly.

Joseph Wright of Derby, National Gallery, London, an experiment on a bird in the air pump, Robert Boyle, Derby
Joseph Wright of Derby, An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, 1768, oil on canvas, 183cm x 244cm, National Gallery.

Joseph Wright of Derby painted his famous study, now in the National Gallery in 1768, at the height of the Enlightenment. The scientist at the centre then known as a ‘natural philosopher’, is describing an experiment with a vacuum pump. By withdrawing the air from the glass jar the bird struggles for breath and would die if air was not allowed to re-enter. The experiment not only highlights the mechanical wonders of the pump, or pneumatic engine as it was known, but illustrates so vividly the advancing knowledge of how life works – its dependence on oxygen for respiration.

Joseph Wright of Derby, An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, 1768, (detail)

Wright’s painting is a great example of the shadow painting he made popular. Note the full moon outside. However, he was a superb portrait painter and captures so well the differing emotions of the scene. We have already met the dominating scientist, almost engaging with spectator. He is almost asking us whether to re-admit the air and let the bird live. But look at the two girls. One horrified by the struggling bird, being comforted by her father, and the other transfixed by the experiment. She maybe thinking what this means as we increase our understanding of the world.

Joseph Wright of Derby, An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, 1768, (detail)

The two lovers on the left may represent that huge majority that don’t really care – they are only concerned with themselves. Then there is the grey haired elderly man on the right foreground in profile. What is he thinking as he seems in his own thoughts about the experiment? Maybe asking himself what comes next? What does this mean for us all?

Joseph Wright of Derby, An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, 1768, (detail)

A forerunner for Rodin’s “The Thinker” maybe!

This fascinating painting makes us look at science as it unfolds before us, but also makes us look inwardly at ourselves and what it all means to us, and what might come next.

Hope you enjoy this great painting and visit at the National Gallery in London when we can again.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Steven Oberg says:

    Thanks so much. I really enjoy how you focus on parts of the painting and make it truly come alive.


    1. This has always been a favourite of mine as it exemplifies the diverse reactions to progress.


  2. A beautiful painting and a really interesting explanation
    Thank you

    Liked by 1 person

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