One of the great masterpieces from the Age of Enlightenment, Joseph Wright of Derby's monumental An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768) depicts a small group of people gathered around a candlelit table on which a lecturer in natural history is performing a scientific experiment, namely the creation of a vacuum, as described by chemist Robert Boyle in the 17th century. As air is slowly removed from a glass jar, the fate of a cockatiel inside the jar hangs in the balance. The observers' reactions range from fascination to dismay. In Wright's hands, the tableau is an exercise in the sublime, a moment of extreme tension recast as a dramatic meditation on the fragility of life. At the same time, the experiment being performed relates to advances in the fields of science and medicine, making the scene a celebration of human achievement.
"Science and the Sublime: A Masterpiece by Joseph Wright of Derby" presents the powerful 6-by-8-foot painting on loan from the National Gallery in London, where it is one of that institution's most popular paintings, along with 15 works from The Huntington's own collections, including two smaller paintings by Wright and 13 rare objects from the Library's holdings. The exhibition's theme highlights two major strengths of The Huntington's collections—British art and the history of science—providing a unique opportunity to juxtapose materials that are not normally displayed together. Alongside Bird in the Air Pump, are rare books and ephemera that reveal the real science behind the elements that Wright depicts on canvas, as well as the contemporary moral and aesthetic debates with which he engages.
The loan of Bird in the Air Pump is part of a reciprocal exchange with the National Gallery, where The Huntington's most famous work, Thomas Gainsborough's iconic painting of The Blue Boy (ca. 1770), will be on display for London museumgoers for the first time in a century, from Jan. 25 through May 15, 2022.