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

Interpretation of Realist Genre Painting with Caravaggist Lighting

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An Experiment on a Bird
in the Air Pump (detail)
By Joseph Wright of Derby.
Regarded as one of the
greatest paintings of
the eighteenth century.

An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768)


Analysis of An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump
Interpretation of Other 18th-Century Paintings


Name: An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768)
Artist: Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-97)
Medium: Oil painting on canvas
Type: Genre painting (but see below)
Movement: Classical realism
Location: National Gallery, London

For the meaning of other celebrated masterpieces,
please see: Famous Paintings Analyzed (1250-1800).

For more background on
18th-century art, see:
English Figurative painting and
English Landscape painting


Ranked among the best English painters of the 18th century, Joseph Wright was the first major artist in England to base his career outside London. During the 1760s he started painting candlelit scenes rich in contrast between bright light and dark shadows, becoming best known for his paintings depicting scientific experiments attended by awe-struck observers. In his skilful use of chiaroscuro and dramatic tenebrism, he was greatly influenced by the works of Caravaggio and the style of Caravaggism which he introduced. Other notable influences included Dutch painting of the 17th century, especially the Dutch Realism of Rembrandt and others.

Analysis of An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump

With this painting, Joseph Wright of Derby created a new invention - part genre, part portrait, part history painting. It remains unique and has no real imitators, yet it bears the stamp of genius. On a moonlit night in a darkened room, a company of amateurs and friends gather to witness a demonstration of a new device, an air pump, whose functionality can be demonstrated through its effects on a bird. Mingling direct reportage with high drama, Wright of Derby spins a timeless tale out of the prosaic reality of life around him. Derby was an important manufacturing centre that was actively engaged in current intellectual and scientific pursuits. Wright played his part in both spheres. In the mid-1760s he joined a group that came to be known as the Lunar Society. At monthly meetings on the Monday nearest to the full moon, members witnessed and discussed scientific experiments involving astronomy, chemistry, electricity, and medicine. The group included Josiah Wedgwood, the pottery manufacturer; James Watt, the engineer who made fundamental improvements to the steam engine; Dr. Erasmus Darwin, physician, poet, and Charles Darwin's grandfather; and Joseph Priestly, famous chemist, clergyman, and political theorist.



These gifted men were fascinated by the general availability of scientific instruments, including telescopes, orreries (clockwork models of the solar system), and air pumps, which they added to their collections. They dabbled in geology, botany, medicine, archeology, and astronomy. Participants in the Enlightenment, when reason was emphasized and existing ideas and institutions were reappraised, the Lunar Society and others like it reshaped man's view of the world and his sense of his place within it. The same curiosity that inspired Wright of Derby to join the Lunar Society probably assured his attendance at the scientific lectures given by the Scottish astronomer James Ferguson (1710-76), who visited Derby in 1762 and demonstrated an air pump. What Wright created out of this experience makes the viewer feel like a witness to this experiment, but this drama is the product of great artistic license coupled with careful observation of nature and a great respect for art history.

From Caravaggio and his many followers Wright made this a candle and moonlit scene, setting the whole event in dramatic chiaroscuro. From Rembrandt's Leiden followers - the so-called fijnschilders ("fine small-scale painters") of whom Gerrit Dou (1613-75) was the most famous - Wright developed his smoothly rendered, meticulous realism. Using his friends and neighbours as models, the artist supplied a believable slice of life while creating archetypes of age, understanding, and gender.

NOTE: In the painting, a travelling scientist is shown conducting an experiment during which a vacuum is created by the air pump, which for a moment robs the bird of the air it needs in order to breathe. In this moment, the scientist must decide between life and death, a decision which classically belongs to God alone. The picture is therefore - at heart - a human drama.

A young couple to the left are too involved in courtship to care much about the experiment, while the young girls on the right weep over the fate of their pet cockatoo (which is based on a bird Wright knew from a portrait commission). As their father tries to teach them about the harder realities of life, or comfort them with the news that not all the air will be removed - the picture is the ultimate cliff-hanger - only the bewigged amateur and the young man beside him are completely absorbed in the experiment, and listen as the wild-haired old man expounds on his thesis as the experiment progresses. To the right, another gentleman is lost in thought, perhaps contemplating the larger meaning of this demonstration with respect to life, death, and mankind's place in the scheme of things.

Also worth noting are the various items of scientific equipment depicted. The air pump itself is painted in highly realistic detail, a faithful rendering of a design in use at the time. There is also a thermometer, candle snuffer and cork, along with a pair of Magdeburg hemispheres, which in combination with the air pump might have been used to demonstrate the pressure exerted by a vacuum. (When the air is pumped out from between the two hemispheres it becomes impossible to pull them apart.) Two other items - the human skull in the large glass bowl and the candle - are believed to constitute a memento mori (a reminder of death), a motif commonly used in Vanitas painting to highlight the transient nature of earthly concerns, compared to the eternal nature of Christian values.

Despite its enlightened approach to science, this picture's social attitudes are, to modern eyes, reactionary. Wright of Derby was one of the earliest artists to restore men and women (pictorially at least) to what society then believed was their proper spheres. Men think and reason, women feel. What a far cry from Watteau's androgynous couples rendered equal by mutual civility, or Tiepolo and Boucher's triumphant females! Here, women are marginalized and placed, so to speak, at the sidelines of human affairs. By expressing this shift in attitude, Wright anticipated by nearly twenty years the divided genders of David's Oath if the Horatii (1785, Louvre, Paris). However, in this work he accomplished far more than that. Wright's picture, so unique to his place and time, is an indelible and iconic snapshot of an era and one of the most memorable images ever painted.

The painting was first exhibited to the public at the Society of Artists exhibition in 1768, and was eventually purchased by a Dr Benjamin Bates, for a sum believed to be between £130 and £200. Subsequent sales led eventually to its acquisition by the Tate Gallery in 1929, from whom it was transferred to the National Gallery in 1986.

Interpretation of Other 18th-Century Paintings

Pilgrimage to Cythera (1717) by Jean-Antoine Watteau.
Louvre, Paris; Charlottenburg Palace, Berlin.

Wurzburg Residence Frescoes (1750-3) by Tiepolo.
Wurzburg Palace.

The Swing (L'Escarpolette) (1767) by Jean-Honore Fragonard.
Wallace Collection, London.

The Nightmare (1781) by Henry Fuseli.
Detroit Institute of Arts.

Death of Marat (1793) by Jacques-Louis David.
Musees Royaux des Beaux Arts, Brussels.

We gratefully acknowledge the use, in the above article, of material from "Art: The Critics' Choice" by Marina Vaizey (Watson-Guptill Publications, 1999), a stimulating and erudite source of information on famous works of art, and a valuable reference for any student.


• For more genre paintings by English artists, see: Homepage.

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