Skip to main content

Joseph Wright 'of Derby', An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump

Key facts
Full title An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump
Artist Joseph Wright 'of Derby'
Artist dates 1734 - 1797
Date made 1768
Medium and support Oil on canvas
Dimensions 183 × 244 cm
Acquisition credit Presented by Edward Tyrrell, 1863
Inventory number NG725
Location Room 34
Collection Main Collection
An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump
Joseph Wright 'of Derby'

An audience has gathered around a lecturer to watch an experiment. It is night, and the room is lit by a single candle that burns behind a large rounded glass containing a diseased human skull. A white cockatoo has been placed in a glass container from which the air is being pumped to create a vacuum. Will the lecturer expel the air completely and kill the bird, or allow the air back in and revive it? Wright focuses on the viewers‘ differing reactions – from the girl unable to watch to the lovers with eyes only for each other.

This is the largest, most ambitious and dramatic of the series of ’candlelight' pictures Wright painted during the 1760s. It captures the drama of a staged scientific experiment but it also functions as a vanitas – a painting concerning the passing of time, the limits of human knowledge and the frailty of life itself.

Download image
Download low-resolution image

Download a low-resolution copy of this image for personal use.

License this image

License and download a high-resolution image for reproductions up to A3 size from the National Gallery Picture Library.

License image
Download low-resolution image

This image is licensed for non-commercial use under a Creative Commons agreement.

Examples of non-commercial use are:

  • Research, private study, or for internal circulation within an educational organisation (such as a school, college or university)
  • Non-profit publications, personal websites, blogs, and social media

The image file is 800 pixels on the longest side.

As a charity, we depend upon the generosity of individuals to ensure the collection continues to engage and inspire. Help keep us free by making a donation today.

Download low-resolution image

You must agree to the Creative Commons terms and conditions to download this image.

Creative Commons Logo