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Image of 'An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump' by Joseph Wright of Derby, 1768

'An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump' by Joseph Wright of Derby, 1768

This dramatically lit painting shows a family gathered round a table, on which a scientist performs an experiment.

The scientist, in red, is proving that living things need air to breathe, to survive. He is using a vacuum pump to withdraw air from a glass flask containing a white cockatoo. The bird is probably the pet of the two little girls in the painting, as their reactions show fright and horror at the possible outcome. The painting reveals a wide range of individual reactions, from the frightened children, through the reflective philosopher, the excited interest of the youth on the left, to the indifferent young lovers concerned only with each other.

The bird will die if the scientist continues to deprive it of oxygen, and Wright leaves us in doubt as to whether or not the cockatoo will be reprieved. It is a matter of life and death, reiterated by the skull in the glass jar on the table.

© The National Gallery, London
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