26 December 2014

An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump

This is one of my favorite paintings – each and every time I go back to it I seem to be able to discover something new – or just simply get lost in its amazing detail. It was executed by Joseph Wright of Derby in 1768 and today you may think of it as a fairly traditional composition.  In its day, however, it was ground breaking.  It is still considered by many to be one of the masterpieces of British art.

See the reverence on the faces of those caught in time?  This scene of veneration was in praise of science and until this point the awe depicted here would have been strictly reserved for scenes of historical or religious significance.  Wright was really breaking down the boundaries here, but despite this his style was never widely imitated despite the fact that he was held in great admiration by contemporary artists.

The painting shows a natural philosopher – there he is center left looking at you, inviting your participation.  He is recreating an earlier experiment by Robert Boyle in which a bird is deprived of air.  The reactions of the onlookers represent a whole gamut of human emotions. One poor girl cannot even look on, so upset is she for the bird - her father tries to explain the nature of the experiment while the younger sister can bring herself to look at the experiment, but what a look of concern she has on her face!

Others regard the experiment with an air of scientific curiosity while the gentleman on the right seems to be lost in his own contemplations, perhaps on the transience of life and of our power over it.  The two young lovers on the left, however, only seem to have eyes for each other and are, it seems, unconcerned about the fate of the bird. The whole scene is beautifully composed and the choice of representing it in candlelight an absolute masterstroke.

What do you think? asks the natural philosopher.  Should I continue with the experiment and kill the bird or halt it, saving the bird while denying ourselves new scientific knowledge?  Which avenue would you chose?

Image Credit Wikimedia