WRIGHT, Joseph
(b. 1734, Derby, d. 1797, Derby)

Experiment with the Air Pump

c. 1768
Oil on canvas, 183 x 244 cm
National Gallery, London

Most of Joseph Wright's paintings explore the effects of light and illumination. He counted amongst his close friends a number of factory owners and scientists, the very people who were the driving force behind the changes that came with the dawn of the industrial age, which was to bring so much profit and wreak such disaster. He was fascinated by mankind's encounter with technology innovation and invention, and with the myth of a new era which he monumentalised in his paintings. The light that Caravaggio used to project his revelations and celestial visions seems to have fascinated Wright as well. But the spectator soon realizes that any similarity is misleading. In the work of Caravaggio, the source of light remains unknown so that it seems almost supernatural. Wright, on the other hand, uses light for dramatic effect. The experiment carried out by the elderly, long-haired scholar thus becomes an exciting theatrical scene.

The scientist is demonstrating the principle of the vacuum, Using a pump, he has emptied the glass sphere of air, creating a vacuum in which a bird seems to be struggling to gasp its last breath. Pained, the little girl turns her face away as though witnessing the martyrdom of a saint. Here, we find religious iconography being used to portray a worldly situation, elevating the scientific experiment to a para-religious event.