painting - An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump

painting - An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump
Photograph by MagicToDooron Flickr.

Given their solemn atmosphere however, and as it seems none of the figures are intended to be understood as portraits painting An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (even if models may be identified), the paintings can not be regarded as conversation pieces. An anonymous review from the time painting called Wright a very great and uncommon genius in a peculiar way . An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump followed in 1768, the emotionally charged experiment contrasting with the orderly scene from The Orrery. Wright s first painting Caspar David Friedrich attempt, A Girl reading a Letter by candlelight with a Young Man looking over her shoulder from 1762 or 1763, is a trial in the genre, and is fetching though uncomplicated.

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, In both of these works the candlelit setting had a realist justification. In the book, he described in great detail 43 experiments he conducted, on occasion assisted by Hooke, on the effect of air on various phenomena.

Viewing sculpture by candlelight, when the contours showed well and there might even be an impression of movement from the flickering light, was a fashionable practice described by Goethe. The painting was one of a number of British works challenging the set categories of the rigid, French-dictated hierarchy of genres in the late 18th century, as other types of painting aspired to be treated as seriously as the costumed history painting of a Classical or mythological subject. However Judy Egerton wonders if he could have seen any, preferring as influences the far smaller works of the Leiden fijnschilder Godfried Schalcken (1643–1706), whose reputation was much greater in the early 18th century than subsequently.

The painting, which measures 72 by 94½ inches (183 by 244 cm), shows a white cockatoo fluttering in panic as the air is slowly withdrawn from the vessel by the pump. While ground-breaking, they are regarded as peculiar to Wright, whose unique style has been explained in many ways.

Shelagh Stephenson s play An Experiment with an Air Pump, inspired by the painting, was the joint winner of the 1997 Margaret Ramsay Award and had its premiere at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester in 1998. . Wright was intimately involved in depicting the Industrial Revolution and the scientific advances of the Enlightenment, but while his paintings were recognized as something out of the ordinary by his contemporaries, his provincial status and choice of subjects meant the style was never widely imitated.

Boyle tested the effects of rarified air on combustion, magnetism, sound, and barometers, and examined the effects of increased air pressure on various substances. The picture has been owned by the National Gallery, London since 1863 and is still regarded as a masterpiece of British art. The 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 oxygen, before a varied group of onlookers.

Boyle, the son of the Earl of Cork, had no such concerns—after its construction, he donated the initial 1659 model to the Royal Society and had a further two redesigned machines built for his personal use. Viewers remarked that it was clever and vigorous , From Bates, the picture passed to Walter Tyrell; another member of the Tyrell family, Edward, presented it to the National Gallery, London in 1863, after it had failed to sell at an auction at Christie s in 1854.

It may be observed, however, that the stand on which the pump is situated casts no shadow on the body of the philosopher, as it could be expected to do. Wright s Air Pump was unusual in that it depicted archetypes rather than specific people, though various models for the figures have been suggested. The group exhibits a variety of reactions, but for most of the audience scientific curiosity overcomes concern for the bird.

In this attempt to discover something about the account upon which Respiration is so necessary to the Animals, that Nature hath furnish d with Lungs , Boyle conducted numerous trials during which he placed a large variety of different creatures, including birds, mice, eels, snails and flies, in the vessel of the pump and studied their reactions as the air was removed. In some respects the Orrery and Air Pump subjects resembled conversation pieces, then largely a form of middle-class portraiture, though soon to be given new status when Johann Zoffany began to paint the royal family in about 1766.

An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump is a 1768 oil-on-canvas painting by Joseph Wright of Derby, one of a number of candlelit scenes that Wright painted during the 1760s. Aside from Boyle s three pumps, there were probably no more than four others in existence during the 1660s: Christian Huygens had one in The Hague, Henry Power may have had one at Halifax, and there may have been pumps at Christ s College, Cambridge and the Montmor Academy in Paris. Despite the operational and maintenance obstacles, construction of the pump enabled Boyle to conduct a great many experiments on the properties of air, which he later detailed in his New Experiments Physico-Mechanicall, Touching the Spring of the Air, and its Effects (Made, for the Most Part, in a New Pneumatical Engine).

He listed two experiments on living creatures: Experiment 40, which tested the ability of insects to fly under reduced air pressure, and the dramatic Experiment 41, which demonstrated the reliance of living creatures on air for their survival. in 1976, the National Museum of Fine Arts in Stockholm in 1979–1980, and Paris (Grand Palais), New York (Metropolitan) and the Tate in London in 1990.

The light illuminating the scene has been described as so brilliant it could only be the light of revelation . While never a member himself, he had strong connections with the Lunar Society: he was friends with members John Whitehurst and Erasmus Darwin, as well as Josiah Wedgwood, who later commissioned paintings from him. Wright exhibited the painting at the Society of Artists exhibition in 1763 and it was re-exhibited before Christian VII of Denmark in September the same year.

It has also been suggested that he may be drawing the curtains to block out the light from the full moon. Jenny Uglow believes that the boy echoes the figure in the last print of William Hogarth s The Four Stages of Cruelty by pointing out the arrogance and potential cruelty of experimentation, The cockatoo would have been a rare bird at the time, and one whose life would never in reality have been risked in an experiment such as this . On the table are various other pieces of equipment that the natural philosopher would have used during his demonstration: a thermometer, candle snuffer and cork, and close to the man seated to the right is a pair of Magdeburg hemispheres, which would have been used with the air pump to demonstrate the difference in pressure exerted by the air and a vacuum: when the air was pumped out from between the two hemispheres they were impossible to pull apart. He had worked in England from 1692 to 1697, and several of his paintings can be placed in English collections in Wright s day. The first of his candlelit masterpieces, Three Persons Viewing the Gladiator by Candlelight, was painted in 1765, and showed three men studying a small copy of the Borghese Gladiator .

The painting was transferred to the Tate Gallery in 1929, although it was actually on loan to Derby Museum and Art Gallery between 1912 and 1947. It has been lent out for exhibitions to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

The witnesses display various emotions: one of the girls worriedly watches the fate of the bird, while the other is too upset to observe and is comforted by her father; two gentlemen (one of them dispassionately timing the experiment) and a boy look on with interest, while the young lovers to the left of the painting are absorbed only in each other. By 1762, he was an accomplished portrait artist, and his 1764 group portrait James Shuttleworth, his Wife and Daughter is acknowledged as his first true masterpiece.

It has even spawned pastiches: the book cover of The Science of Discworld, by Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen, is a tribute to the painting by artist Paul Kidby, who substitutes the book s protagonists for Wright s figures. Wright s provincial status and ties to the Lunar Society, a group of prominent industrialists, scientists and intellectuals who met regularly in Birmingham between 1765 and 1813, have been highlighted, as well as his close association with and sympathy for the advances made in the burgeoning Industrial Revolution.

The central figure looks out of the picture as if inviting the viewer s participation in the outcome. In 1659, Robert Boyle commissioned the construction of an air pump, then described as a pneumatic engine , which is known today as a vacuum pump. It was perhaps Frye s candlelight images that tempted Wright to experiment with subject pieces.

Wright s An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump forms part of a series of candlelit nocturnes that he produced between 1765 and 1768. There was a long history of painting candlelit scenes in Western art, although as Wright had not at this date travelled abroad, there remains uncertainty as to what paintings he might have seen in the original, as opposed to prints. It was reclaimed by the National Gallery from the Tate in 1986. The striking scene has been used as the cover illustration for many books on topics both artistic and scientific.

The air pump was invented by Otto von Guericke in 1650, though its cost deterred most contemporary scientists from constructing the apparatus. The painting departed from convention of the time by depicting a scientific subject in the reverential manner formerly reserved for scenes of historical or religious significance.

To one side of the boy at the rear, the cockatoo s empty cage can be seen on the wall, and to further heighten the drama it is unclear whether the boy is lowering the cage on the pulley to allow the bird to be replaced after the experiment or hoisting the cage back up certain of its former occupant s death. Here, he describes an injured lark: …the Bird for a while appear d lively enough; but upon a greater Exsuction of the Air, she began manifestly to droop and appear sick, and very soon after was taken with as violent and irregular Convulsions, as are wont to be observ d in Poultry, when their heads are wrung off: For the Bird threw her self over and over two or three times, and dyed with her Breast upward, her Head downwards, and her Neck awry. By the time Wright painted his picture in 1768, air pumps were a relatively commonplace scientific instrument, and itinerant lecturers in natural philosophy —usually more showmen than scientists—often performed the animal in the air pump experiment as the centrepiece of their public demonstration. During his apprenticeship and early career Wright concentrated on portraiture.

The Gladiator was greatly admired; but his next painting, A Philosopher giving that Lecture on the Orrery, in which a Lamp is put in place of the Sun (normally known by the shortened form A Philosopher Giving a Lecture on the Orrery or just The Orrery), caused a greater stir, as it replaced the Classical subject at the centre of the scene with one of a scientific nature. The air pump itself is rendered in exquisite detail, a faithful record of the designs in use at the time. The powerful central light source creates a chiaroscuro effect.

Nicolson, who made studies of both Wright and other candlelight painters such as the 17th century Utrecht Caravaggisti, thought their paintings, among the largest in the style, those most likely to have influenced Wright. The young lovers may have been based on Thomas Coltman and Mary Barlow, friends of Wright s, whom he later painted in Mr and Mrs Thomas Coltman (also in the National Gallery) after their marriage in 1769; Erasmus Darwin has been suggested as the man timing the experiment on the left of the table, and John Warltire, whom Darwin had invited to help with some air pump experiments in real life, as the natural philosopher; Wright s scientific paintings adopted elements from the tradition of history painting but lacked the heroic central action typical of that genre.

Benedict Nicolson suggests that Wright was influenced by the work of Thomas Frye; in particular by the 18 bust-length mezzotints which Frye completed just before his death in 1762. Other critics have emphasized a desire to capture a snapshot of the society of the day, in the tradition of William Hogarth but with a more neutral stance that lacks the biting satire of Hogarth s work. The scientific subjects of Wright s paintings from this time were meant to appeal to the wealthy scientific circles in which he moved.