San Marino, Calif.
The scientist in the remarkable painting “An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump” (1768)—which is now the focus of an exhibition, “Science and the Sublime: A Masterpiece by Joseph Wright of Derby,” at the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens—is the only figure whose gaze is open, forthright, undistracted. His face is framed by voluminous graying locks; his loose robes recall those of a medieval magus. And he seems to be appealing to us. Ignoring the figures gathered around, he gazes out beyond the painting’s frame, his right hand extended in an expectant gesture, his brows raised, as if awaiting a decision. About what?
Science and the Sublime: A Masterpiece by Joseph Wright of Derby
Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens
Through May 30
Well, his other hand is at the top of a giant bell jar where he lightly grasps a stopcock. If he turns it, air will rush in and an exotic white cockatoo—now lying prone at the bottom of the jar—will revive. But if the valve remains closed, the pump will do its work and the experiment will make its point: Without air, there is no life.
The painting is on a short-term loan from London’s National Gallery in exchange for the Huntington’s loan of
“The Blue Boy” (c. 1770). It is worth seeking out. Wright’s “Experiment” is familiar enough in reproductions; it is, the exhibition notes, “one of the key images of the Enlightenment,” illustrating how experimentation and reason were redefining European culture and (as we see) private life. But here, in its painterly flesh, with its exquisite shadings and imposing size (6 feet by 8 feet), it becomes both powerful and disquieting. The onlookers, illuminated by a single, unseen candle, become distinctive characters, each preoccupied with different thoughts. The experimenter looms above, directly challenging us. We become implicated in the experiment’s outcome, forced to tangle with its unsettling drama.
The Huntington has gathered 15 works from its collection as accompaniments to that painting , including two other paintings by Wright along with rare books and artifacts related to the history of the air-pump experiment. We see a 1672 volume by the German scientist
Otto von Guericke
showing his 1654 demonstration, in which teams of horses were unable to pull apart the halves of a copper sphere held together by a vacuum (a domestic version of that sphere sits on the painting’s table).
“New Experiments Physico-Mechanicall, Touching the Spring of the Air, and Its Effects” (1662) includes an early version of the bird experiment. And a 1729 edition of the poem “The Wanderer” by
(c. 1697-1743) describes the pump’s effects: “So in some Engine, that denies a Vent,/ If unrespiring is some Creature pent,/ It sickens, droops, and pants, and gasps for Breath,/ Sad o’er the Sight swim shad’wy Mists of Death.”
There is nothing new, then, in the painting, but the demonstration still creates a sensation. Such was the Enlightenment’s impact—not just to elevate reason, but to shift understanding of ordinary phenomena. Wright associated with major inventors, including
who industrialized pottery manufacture, and Erasmus Darwin (Charles’s grandfather), whose portrait was painted by Wright and is represented here by a volume of horticultural inventions. These men participated in the Lunar Society of Birmingham, which met on nights close to the full moon, allowing members easier travel after an evening of scientific talk and experiment; it is no accident that a full moon shines in Wright’s painting.
But why the sublime? As we know from
“A Philosophical Enquiry Into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful” (1757) on display, the sublime is associated with awe-inspiring landscapes that stymie reason’s effort to comprehend them, implicitly challenging the Enlightenment’s embrace of logic and clarity. One of Wright’s other paintings here, “Vesuvius From Portici” (c. 1774-76), fits that model: A volcanic eruption creates a roiling landscape of clouds, fire and smoke.
Wright’s air-pump painting, seems very far from the sublime with its intimate, domestic interior, but not in its invocations of bewilderment, awe, and even a hint of terror. One girl half averts her head while compelled to peek at the threatened bird. Her sister shields her eyes. A compelling figure in a brown habit of sorts stares into the candlelight, seeking interior illumination—a man of religious temperament, perhaps, trying to assess this brave new world. The Enlightenment suffuses the painting, but so do opposing sentiments: bewilderment about an altered landscape; concern about moral issues and the costs of pursuing reason. We are meant to experience similar tensions as we consider our own verdict.
The exhibition ends with an emphasis on creaturely sympathy, offering
series “The Four Stages of Cruelty” (1751), which show a child’s grotesque violence against animals guaranteeing a vile human destiny. Also shown is an 1879 pamphlet by
(1831-1896): “Prevention of Cruelty, and Anti-vivisection.” Even Wright’s painting may weigh the balance in favor of the opposition. But nothing is settled. Now, some 250 years later, debates about the glories and failings of the Enlightenment continue, as if the painting’s magus were still awaiting our response.
—Mr. Rothstein is the Journal’s Critic at Large.
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