Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump
Paul Duro comments on the gendered responses to the experiment:
“The male members of the audience seem indifferent to the fate of the bird. They are engaged in pondering the larger questions of life and death (or in recording, in the manner of scientific observation, the death throes of the bird). As such they follow the lecturer’s explanation with what appears to be dispassionate interest. The girls, on the other hand, as bearers of a feminized sensibility, serve to draw the implications of the experiment away from the calculations of science to highlight issues of ethicality and morality. Wright is hardly alone in including women in his paintings to draw out these distinctions. Jacques-Louis David employs a similar gendered device in both the Oath of the Horatii and Brutus and his Sons to contrast the selfless, public spirited, sacrifice of the male protagonists with the subjective and emotional response of the women. Indeed, the sole adult female present in the Air Pump, most commonly assumed to be engaged in dialogue with her young escort, may from this perspective be seen to be looking regretfully at the lack of compassion evinced by her companion. “
Paul Duro, “’Great and Noble Ideas of the Moral Kind’: Wright of Derby and the Scientific Sublime,” Art History, vol. 33, nr. 4 (September 2010): 673.
Stephen Daniels, Joseph Wright (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999), pp. 40-1.