An_Experiment_on_a_Bird_in_the_Air_Pump.2006.BBC_Doc.WS.DVBC.XviD-ACP.avi [639.75 Mb]
An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump @ The National Gallery
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A travelling scientist is shown demonstrating the formation of a vacuum by withdrawing air from a flask containing a white cockatoo, though common birds like sparrows would normally have been used. Air pumps were developed in the 17th century and were relatively familiar by Wright's day. The artist's subject is not scientific invention, but a human drama in a night-time setting.
The bird will die if the demonstrator continues to deprive it of oxygen, and Wright leaves us in doubt as to whether or not the cockatoo will be reprieved. The painting reveals a wide range of individual reactions, from the frightened children, through the reflective philosopher, the excited interest of the youth on the left, to the indifferent young lovers concerned only with each other.
The figures are dramatically lit by a single candle, while in the window the moon appears. On the table in front of the candle is a glass containing a skull.
Ben Woolley tells the story of a neglected masterpiece: Joseph Wright of Derby's An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump. Until recently, Wright was dismissed by many art critics as a minor provincial but Wright was in fact a virtuoso painter whose scientific paintings give a unique insight into the Enlightenment in Britain.
Ben Woolley's deconstruction of this epic painting takes him from Wright's birthplace in Derby to East Germany, where he witnesses a reconstruction of the famous Magdeburg hemispheres experiment. He visits London's Royal Society and uncovers the strange history of animal experimentation in the 18th century.
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