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
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