In this lecture, renowned art historian David Solkin shows how Joseph Wright of Derby constructed conflicting messages out of an eclectic mix of elements drawn from different pictorial traditions in An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump and asks us to consider the artwork's relevance today.
When Air Pump made its public debut in 1768, visitors to the Society of Artists exhibition in London were given the novel opportunity to confront a dramatic glimpse of their own world depicted on the scale of life. Enlightened, affluent, and emphatically contemporary, the genteel company surrounding Wright's scientific lecturer embodied the virtues of sociability and sensibility—qualities that a host of 18th-century commentators proudly hailed as the crowning glories of a modern commercial society. But if the Air Pump held up a flattering mirror to its original audience, it also registered the presence of a dissenting body of opinion, one long-dedicated to highlighting the dangers that the progress of commerce posed to personal and collective morality.
This is the Wark Lecture in Art History.