An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump

A travelling scientist is shown demonstrating the formation of a vacuum by withdrawing air from a flask containing a white cockatoo, though common birds like sparrows would normally have been used. Air pumps were developed in the 17th century and were relatively familiar by Wright's day. The artist's subject is not scientific invention, but a human drama in a night-time setting.

The bird will die if the demonstrator continues to deprive it of oxygen, and Wright leaves us in doubt as to whether or not the cockatoo will be reprieved. 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 figures are dramatically lit by a single candle, while in the window the moon appears. On the table in front of the candle is a glass containing a skull.

Key facts

Artist
Artist dates
1734 - 1797
Full title
An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump
Date made
1768
Medium and support
Oil on canvas
Dimensions
183 × 244 cm
Acquisition credit
Presented by Edward Tyrrell, 1863
Inventory number
NG725
Location in Gallery