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An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump Options
Daemon
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An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump

Considered a masterpiece of British art, An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump is a 1768 oil-on-canvas painting by Joseph Wright. Portraying a scientific subject in the reverential manner formerly reserved for historical or religious scenes, the painting depicts a natural philosopher—a forerunner of the modern scientist—recreating an experiment in which a bird is deprived of oxygen before a group of onlookers. How does Wright effectively draw the viewer into the scene? More...
ChristopherJohnson
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Truly remarkable experiment for that period.
raghd muhi al-deen
Posted: Friday, September 08, 2017 9:28:07 AM

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An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump
An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump
An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump
Artist Joseph Wright of Derby
Year 1768
Type Oil-on-canvas
Dimensions 183 cm × 244 cm (72 in × 94 1&fras1;2 in)
Location National Gallery, London, England

An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump is a 1768 oil-on-canvas painting by Joseph Wright of Derby, one of a number of candlelit scenes that Wright painted during the 1760s. The painting departed from convention of the time by depicting a scientific subject in the reverential manner formerly reserved for scenes of historical or religious significance. Wright was intimately involved in depicting the Industrial Revolution and the scientific advances of the Enlightenment, but while his paintings were recognized as something out of the ordinary by his contemporaries, his provincial status and choice of subjects meant the style was never widely imitated. The picture has been owned by the National Gallery, London since 1863 and is still regarded as a masterpiece of British art.

The painting depicts a natural philosopher, a forerunner of the modern scientist, recreating one of Robert Boyle's air pump experiments, in which a bird is deprived of air, before a varied group of onlookers. The group exhibits a variety of reactions, but for most of the audience scientific curiosity overcomes concern for the bird. The central figure looks out of the picture as if inviting the viewer's participation in the outcome.
Historical background
Title page of Robert Boyle's New Experiments of 1660, in which he detailed how to perform the experiment.

In 1659, Robert Boyle commissioned the construction of an air pump, then described as a "pneumatic engine", which is known today as a vacuum pump. The air pump was invented by Otto von Guericke in 1650, though its cost deterred most contemporary scientists from constructing the apparatus. Boyle, the son of the Earl of Cork, had no such concerns—after its construction, he donated the initial 1659 model to the Royal Society and had a further two redesigned machines built for his personal use. Aside from Boyle's three pumps, there were probably no more than four others in existence during the 1660s: Christian Huygens had one in The Hague, Henry Power may have had one at Halifax, and there may have been pumps at Christ's College, Cambridge and the Montmor Academy in Paris.[1] Boyle's pump, which was largely designed to Boyle's specifications and constructed by Robert Hooke, was complicated, temperamental, and problematic to operate. Many demonstrations could only be performed with Hooke on hand, and Boyle frequently left critical public displays solely to Hooke—whose dramatic flair matched his technical skill.[2]

Despite the operational and maintenance obstacles, construction of the pump enabled Boyle to conduct a great many experiments on the properties of air, which he later detailed in his New Experiments Physico-Mechanicall, Touching the Spring of the Air, and its Effects (Made, for the Most Part, in a New Pneumatical Engine). In the book, he described in great detail 43 experiments he conducted, on occasion assisted by Hooke, on the effect of air on various phenomena. Boyle tested the effects of "rarified" air on combustion, magnetism, sound, and barometers, and examined the effects of increased air pressure on various substances. He listed two experiments on living creatures: "Experiment 40," which tested the ability of insects to fly under reduced air pressure, and the dramatic "Experiment 41," which demonstrated the reliance of living creatures on air for their survival. In this attempt to discover something "about the account upon which Respiration is so necessary to the Animals, that Nature hath furnish'd with Lungs", Boyle conducted numerous trials during which he placed a large variety of different creatures, including birds, mice, eels, snails and flies, in the vessel of the pump and studied their reactions as the air was removed.[3] Here, he describes an injured lark:

…the Bird for a while appear'd lively enough; but upon a greater Exsuction of the Air, she began manifestly to droop and appear sick, and very soon after was taken with as violent and irregular Convulsions, as are wont to be observ'd in Poultry, when their heads are wrung off: For the Bird threw her self over and over two or three times, and dyed with her Breast upward, her Head downwards, and her Neck awry.[4]

By the time Wright painted his picture in 1768, air pumps were a relatively commonplace scientific instrument, and itinerant "lecturers in natural philosophy"—usually more showmen than scientists—often performed the "animal in the air pump experiment" as the centrepiece of their public demonstration.[5] These were performed in town halls and other large buildings for a ticket-buying audience, or were booked by societies or for private showings in the homes of the well-off, the setting suggested in both of Wright's demonstration pieces.[6] One of the most notable and respectable of the travelling lecturers was James Ferguson FRS, a Scottish astronomer and probable acquaintance of Joseph Wright (both were friends of John Whitehurst). Ferguson noted that a "lungs-glass" with a small air-filled bladder inside was often used in place of the animal, as using a living creature was "too shocking to every spectator who has the least degree of humanity".[7]
Painting
Background
Candlelit scene by Godfried Schalcken

During his apprenticeship and early career Wright concentrated on portraiture. By 1762, he was an accomplished portrait artist, and his 1764 group portrait James Shuttleworth, his Wife and Daughter is acknowledged as his first true masterpiece. Benedict Nicolson suggests that Wright was influenced by the work of Thomas Frye; in particular by the 18 bust-length mezzotints which Frye completed just before his death in 1762. It was perhaps Frye's candlelight images that tempted Wright to experiment with subject pieces. Wright's first attempt, A Girl reading a Letter by candlelight with a Young Man looking over her shoulder from 1762 or 1763, is a trial in the genre, and is fetching though uncomplicated.[8] Wright's An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump forms part of a series of candlelit nocturnes that he produced between 1765 and 1768.

There was a long history of painting candlelit scenes in Western art, although as Wright had not at this date travelled abroad, there remains uncertainty as to what paintings he might have seen in the original, as opposed to prints. Nicolson, who made studies of both Wright and other candlelight painters such as the 17th-century Utrecht Caravaggisti, thought their paintings, among the largest in the style, those most likely to have influenced Wright. However Judy Egerton wonders if he could have seen any, preferring as influences the far smaller works of the Leiden fijnschilder Godfried Schalcken (1643–1706), whose reputation was much greater in the early 18th century than subsequently. He had worked in England from 1692 to 1697, and several of his paintings can be placed in English collections in Wright's day.[9] Although he was the leading expert on them who wrote in English, Nicolson does not suggest that Wright is likely to have known of the 17th-century candlelit narrative religious subjects of Georges de La Tour and Trophime Bigot, which, in their seriousness, are the closest works to Wright that are lit only by candle. The Dutch painters' works and other candlelit scenes by 18th-century English painters such as Henry Morland (father of George) tended instead to exploit the possibilities of semi-darkness for erotic suggestiveness. Some of Wright's own later candlelit scenes were by no means as serious as his first ones, as seen from their titles: Two Boys Fighting Over a Bladder and Two Girls Dressing a Kitten by Candlelight.[10]
Three Persons Viewing the Gladiator by Candlelight (1765)
A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery (1768)

The first of his candlelit masterpieces, Three Persons Viewing the Gladiator by Candlelight, was painted in 1765, and showed three men studying a small copy of the "Borghese Gladiator". Viewing the Gladiator was greatly admired; but his next painting, A Philosopher giving that Lecture on the Orrery, in which a Lamp is put in place of the Sun (normally known by the shortened form A Philosopher Giving a Lecture on the Orrery or just The Orrery), caused a greater stir, as it replaced the Classical subject at the centre of the scene with one of a scientific nature. Wright's depiction of the awe produced by scientific "miracles" marked a break with traditions in which the artistic depiction of such wonder was reserved for religious events,[11] since to Wright the marvels of the technological age were as awe-inspiring as the subjects of the great religious paintings.[12]

In both of these works the candlelit setting had a realist justification. Viewing sculpture by candlelight, when the contours showed well and there might even be an impression of movement from the flickering light, was a fashionable practice described by Goethe.[13] In the orrery demonstration the shadows cast by the lamp representing the sun were an essential part of the display, used to demonstrate eclipses. But there seems no reason other than heightened drama to stage the air pump experiment in a room lit by a single candle, and in two later paintings of the subject by Charles-Amédée-Philippe van Loo the lighting is normal.[14]

The painting was one of a number of British works challenging the set categories of the rigid, French-dictated hierarchy of genres in the late 18th century, as other types of painting aspired to b

with my pleasure
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