An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump

Science and the Sublime: A Masterpiece by Joseph Wright of Derby

Feb. 12, 2022May. 30, 2022
Huntington Art Gallery

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.

Bird in air pump

"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.

Related Events

Drawing Closer: Family Drop-in Program
Sat., April 2, 2022 | 11 a.m.–2 p.m. | Huntington Art Gallery Loggia
Free with general admission

Kids can get up close and personal with Joseph Wright of Derby's monumental painting, An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, in the exhibition Science and the Sublime in this family drop-in art program. Meet teaching artist Michelle Ohm and role play the emotions found in the painting. Then create your own "discovery" drawings of birds and scientific objects found in the painting on acetate and reveal them to your friends and family. More

It's In the Air: Family Drop-in Program
Sat., April 30, 2022 | 11 a.m.–2 p.m. | Huntington Art Gallery Loggia
Free with general admission

Get up close and personal with Joseph Wright of Derby's monumental painting, An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, in the exhibition Science and the Sublime in this family drop-in art program and learn the science behind the artwork with superstar scientist and STEAM educator, Pablo Aguirre. Learn about the importance of oxygen, how an air pump works, and why air is important to living things with a series of interactive experiments that are fun for the whole family. More

Drawing from the Gallery: Science and the Sublime
Thu., March 31, 2022 | 5 p.m.–7:30 p.m. | Huntington Art Gallery
Members: $30 | Public: $35

We invite you for a closer look at an all-new program that inspires curiosity, conversation, and creativity. This program begins with an in-gallery talk and overview of the exhibit "Science and the Sublime" by curator of British Art, Melinda McCurdy, and concludes with a guided sketching session in the galleries with artist instructor Richard Scott. All supplies and materials will be provided. Tickets

Night at the Salon: Science and the Sublime
Fri., April 15, 2022 | 6 p.m.–9 p.m. | The Huntington
Members: $35 | Public: $45

Explore the exhibition "Science and the Sublime: A Masterpiece by Joseph Wright of Derby" through salon-style offerings in this new evening series including in-gallery curator conversations, scientific exploration, outdoor sketching, live music, and a curated bar. (Wine, beer and cocktails available for purchase.) Tickets

 


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