An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump is a remarkable 1768 oil-on-canvas painting. It depicts a period of time characterized by a great upheaval in philosophical thought – a high point of the Age of the Enlightenment that saw the fascination with a mechanical philosophy defined by reasoned knowledge and empirical method and that upheld a materialistic view of nature exemplified by defined laws of nature as opposed to arbitrary whim. The tone of the culture was that of an enlightened scientific pursuit of the natural world.
The artist is the English painter Joseph Wright of Derby. Described as “the first professional painter to express the spirit of the Industrial Revolution”, he was contemporary to the formation of the Lunar Society of Birmingham, an informal society of learned scholars which included the likes of Erasmus Darwin, Josiah Wedgwood, and James Watt and with which Wright was associated. This philosophical society which met monthly to discuss major developments in natural philosophy and to perform and demonstrate experiments became a symbolism of British enlightenment and inquiry, powered by the scientific principles of questioning authority. Wright’s painting takes this spirit of scientific inquiry out of the professional lodges of institutions such as the Lunar Society and the Royal Society and into the domestic scene of a bourgeois gathering around a scientific spectacle. In it, the itinerary natural philosopher bearing some sort of resemblance to a Newton figure is demonstrating the effect of a vacuum pump, from which all the air has been removed, on a living organism, namely a cockatoo in the painting. The bird is struggling to stay alive and flutters breathlessly. The natural philosopher with his hand over the stop-cock on the glass bowl seems about to choose whether the bird should survive or perish, a sort of ingenuity represented as a divine omnipotence able to exert control over nature. The varied facial expressions across the setting vary from distress, concern, and apprehension to eagerly excitement. The natural philosopher, however, merely looks out of the painting towards the viewer’s line of sight inviting one to witness his artificial manipulation of nature. He is indifferent to the plight of the animal and to any possible sensibilities the spectators may have. His quest for knowledge supersedes all other concerns. As the physiologist Claude Bernard once claimed, the scientist is too possessed and absorbed by a scientific idea to hear the animal’s cries of pains. He sees nothing but his idea.
The painting highlights multiple things. First, it indicates the rising image of the air pump as a powerful symbol of the newly emerging experimental sciences. It also alludes to the notion of knowing about a substance one is interested in by getting rid of it and then observing would happen as a consequence, a fundamental feature of scientific experimental method. Experiments on the air pump revealed that there was an active constituent of air that kept animals alive and kept flames going. They also demonstrated the concept of the vacuum. What was pronounced heretical by the Church was now revealed experimentally by the methods and tools of science. The mechanical philosophy was upending traditional ecclesiastical thought.
But, crucially also, the painting highlights the moral ambiguities surrounding scientific experimentation and the extent to which scientific inquiry can override ethical considerations. The gloomy setting depicted by the painting and represented in a moon ominously receding behind the clouds typifies this sort of uneasy attitude and doubt about the progress of science that was also concomitant with the celebration of science as a system of thought.