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On a moonlit night, 10 people gather around a table; their faces illuminated by candlelight.

A young, anxious girl looks upwards. We follow her gaze and see a glass jar and, inside it, a bird – a rare cockatiel.

An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump

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

The jar is held by a scientist. He is showing the group how sucking air out of a jar creates a vacuum. Starved of oxygen, the bird grows distressed, and the scientist demonstrates how it cannot breathe within the vacuum.

The group reacts to this experiment in different ways. The two young girls are clearly upset. A fatherly figure either consoles them or explains the experiment to them. In contrast, the young boy directly opposite leans in, engrossed. Next to him, a man holds a stopwatch, timing the experiment. Another man, hands clasped, appears deep in thought. The young couple seem only interested in each other. 

The fate of the bird is held in suspense. A boy holds an open cage – is this so that the bird can go back in safely, or has he just released it?

Wright 'of Derby' may have left some clues within the painting. Some believe the glass container on the table holds a skull, which in paintings usually acts as a 'memento mori' – a reminder that we will all die one day. Candles and skulls are often companions in art, the candle demonstrating the passage of time and the skull its end.

An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump can be seen as a work of the Enlightenment, an intellectual and scientific movement across Europe in the 18th century. Alongside the Industrial Revolution, this was a time of radical social, political and technological change.

The children so starkly lit in the painting are part of the generation who will inherit this new world, and who, like us, must decide where they stand on the ethical questions raised by science and progress.

See how this painting inspired schoolchildren in our Take One Picture exhibition