Family Photo Album <i>La Libreria a Venise</i>
Horned Grebe Whooping Crane, <I>Grus Americana</I>
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La Libreria a Venise
Horned Grebe
Whooping Crane, Grus Americana
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Print of Experiment on a Bird in the Airpump

Smithsonian Institution
This is a mezzotint print, made in 1769, of Joseph Wright's oil painting, Experiment on a Bird in the Airpump. Completed in 1768, the original painting is now in the National Gallery in London.

Joseph Wright (1734–1797), was an English painter who pioneered in the artistic treatment of industrial and scientific subjects. In this work he captures the drama of a demonstration of an "air pump" (what we now call a vacuum pump). Air pumps were some of the earliest scientific instruments, and by the 18th century were relatively familiar. In this work Wright is less interested in the science being demonstrated than in the reactions of the audience.

Birds, usually sparrows, were often used in these demonstrations. In this case a white cockatoo has fainted as the air was removed from the jar. The artist doesn't tell us if the bird will be revived, but instead concentrates on the moment and the reactions of the audience to it. The range of reaction—the fright of the children, the interest of the young man, the philosophical reflection of the older man, and the indifference of the young lovers—was probably intended as a commentary on the relation of science to humanity.

Wright was also intensely interested in light and used the single light on the table to add drama to the scene.

Object ID: PH*321747

Division: Division of Medicine and Science

Subject(s): Art, Science & Mathematics

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Smithsonian National Museum of American History