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Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump

National Gallery, London


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, no.4 (September 2010): 673. 


Stephen Daniels interprets the significance of the white cockatoo:  

"A white bird has been taken from its cage on the right and placed in the air jar from which the air has been expelled. The bird is not the usual expendable sparrow or mouse…but rather a luxury pet, a rare white cockatoo, much more expensive than the apparatus which suffocates it. Perhaps it is the pet of the two girls who recoil in horror…one of whom cannot bear to watch….[T]he lecturer's hand is poised at the stopcock, about to release air into the jar and revive the bird, or at least that seems to be the message of the horrified girls' father's comforting gesture. On the table, odd among the various pneumatic instruments, is a liquid-filled glass jar containing the remains of a human skull. This is what the seated old man contemplates, a memento mori, a reminder of death. This gives the imminent revival of the bird a spiritual significance. The white bird recalls the Paraclete, emblem of the Holy Spirit of Christian theology…"

Stephen Daniels, Joseph Wright (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999),  40-1.

Similar Subjects by Other Artists:

Ferdinand Waldmüller, Young Boy with Lantern: Self Portrait, 1824 (Kunsthalle, Hamburg)

About the Artist

Born: Derby, England, 30 September 1734
Died: Derby, England, 29 August 1797
Nationality: English