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An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump

Photo credit: The National Gallery, London

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An audience has gathered around a lecturer to watch an experiment. It is night, and the room is lit by a single candle that burns behind a large rounded glass containing a diseased human skull. A white cockatoo has been placed in a glass container from which the air is being pumped to create a vacuum. Will the lecturer expel the air completely and kill the bird, or allow the air back in and revive it? Wright focuses on the viewers‘ differing reactions – from the girl unable to watch to the lovers with eyes only for each other.

This is the largest, most ambitious and dramatic of the series of ’candlelight' pictures Wright painted during the 1760s. It captures the drama of a staged scientific experiment but it also functions as a vanitas – a painting concerning the passing of time, the limits of human knowledge and the frailty of life itself.

The National Gallery, London



An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump




oil on canvas


H 183 x W 244 cm

Accession number


Acquisition method

Presented by Edward Tyrrell, 1863

Work type


Normally on display at

The National Gallery, London

Trafalgar Square, London, Greater London WC2N 5DN England

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