National Gallery

An Experiment on a bird in the air pump – Joseph Wright Derby – (1768)

An experiment on a bird in an air pump

An experiment on a bird in a air pump

author’s own

Only after looking around the national gallery in London, did I realize that during the time before film and animation, that an artist had to tell a story (or create a scene) with a single ‘frame.’ An experiment on a bird in the air pump by Joseph Wright Derby especially has such life to it – no character is just there to fill space and each display a different emotion and reaction to what is taken place before them. The painting’s title, describes the experiment that is being performed by the scientist. The scientist has placed the bird into a vacuum and is drawing the air out so that the bird is slowly suffocating. The arc of the surrounding heads and the scientist’s arm all lead the viewer’s eyes up towards the bird in the air pump who is the focus point at the table. Another technique that is used to draw focus here is the lighting. The single candle projects so much light in a dark room – this light illuminates the faces of each guest in a way that is very reminiscent of many horror films today. Most horror films take place during the dead of night because of the ‘unknown’ therefore this image is very chilling to view. Furthermore why has the artist decided to paint this scene during the night when small children surrounding would normally be asleep? The reason must be to create this scary and mysterious setting. The people that are watching the experiment must have never seen such a sight before and the candle light is actually revealing their reactions. The artist wanted to depict the experiment in a dark and unsettling way. This is a very powerful painting, and at first glance of this image I feel that the lighting has a very large part of creating a dark and eerie atmosphere. Over 60 percent of the painting uses black or dark tones. The dark shadow encases the people around the table so that they are all crowded together in this small area watching and reacting to the events that are taking place.

focus point

Focus point of heads to arms

In contrast to the sinister darkness there is this wonderful bright light projected from the center of the table.  We are presented with two opposites of darkness and light – Good and bad, life and death, Science and Religion? All of the surrounding imagery makes the experiment look unholy. Such as the full moon and even the skull in the jar which conveys death. The scientist is standing the highest at the table. Perhaps as he is playing God. He is controlling all around him. The painting also leaves the audience wondering the outcome of what is going to happen. Will the scientist choose to destroy the bird or give it back it’s life. The white bird causes me to think of a dove again reminding me of holy symbols within religion. At a time when religion was sacred among many, science may be presented as witchcraft to those who do not fully understand. As an audience we also have no idea what is taking place, we don’t fully comprehend the science. Just like the surrounding people we are confused, scared or fascinated with what is taken place.

Some believe that when the moon is at its fullest that it causes people’s moods to turn ‘crazy’ due to the moon’s control over water and the earth’s tide – and because human’s are made up of 70 percent water it is believed people can change into other beings. Examples of this mythology can be known through tales such as werewolves and witch craft often associated with a full moon. Furthermore the word ‘lunatic’ derives from ‘lunar.’ Unknowingly we connect the moon and its menacing atmosphere to the experiment we are watching. This painting highlights these associations – our eyes are drawn to the full moon that is just about to come out from behind the clouds as the bird is about to die. At first looking at this painting it remains us of witchcraft because it is in darkness the experiment looks as though it is being hidden or taking place at this particular time for the moon (like a ritual or witchcraft.) The group look as though they are in a cavern surrounding a cauldron. It doesn’t look scientific but alien.

The moon

The moon

The colours in this image are mostly cast in shadows or light. However the bold red maroon of the scientist’s jacket makes him stand out – he is the main man of the story. And so the artist wants our focus towards him and the experiment. However the rest of the people surrounding are all wearing pastel or dull colours which could reveal that these characters are mediocre compared to the scientist who is exciting. He is the most vibrant as he is conducting this very thrilling and deadly experiment. The colour connotes blood, a warning or death. He is controlling the outcome of the bird’s life so by having the scientist wearing this intense red for these reasons.


The center

The composition of this painting reminds me of a film setting – the table is open. The people do not close of the circle around the table. The artist has deliberately left a space open for the viewer to also be invited to view the experiment. When I look at this painting I feel like I’m watching the scene unfold – especially as the painting is so large in person. The detail is incredible and life like – it really feels as though I’m there. If you look at any film or drama you can see this layout is very common when there is a large group. This space is used so that the camera can capture the scene as though the audience is there. This technique also makes the painting fill more claustrophobic as we are squashed in with the action. Another element that connects the audience to this painting is the scientist himself. The whole table of people are all looking or reacting to the scene differently  but still they are avoiding eye contact with the audience. However, the scientist that is conducting the experiment, whole body and eyes are looking straight towards the audience. Even his hand is held out towards the viewer, It feels as though he is (again) also inviting us to join the table and watch the experiment. His expression is very mysterious as he only gazes towards us – not even focusing on what he is doing. Everyone looking away from the camera accept for the old man looking into the viewers eyes.

The body language of each person at this table displays a different emotion. This painting has a lot of life because it captures the character’s individual reactions to the experiment. Some do not understanding and therefore don’t want to look. Some people are fascinated. This painting expresses all the possible outcomes to such a event. The first man on the left appears to be very inquisitive, but his posture makes him seem as though he is watching and very concentrated on the experiment more than everyone else at the table. He possibly may even be thinking about the experiment or even something else. Looks as though he is in his own world. The boy second on the left, is looking up rather curiously and excited, he is bending forward to catch that glimpse of the bird as the experiment begins. Just as what we would expect of a young boy – who has never seen anything like this. The couple are not taking notice of the experiment and are more concerned in each other. Perhaps this is to express how a young couple in love barely take notice of the others. The scientist (already mentioned) stands looking towards the audience. With no reaction to what he is doing – so we never fully know how he feels (if he does feel) anything for the bird that is being tortured. The two small children both looked frightened and emphatic for the bird and dark setting. They are only young so most likely do not understand. They are being comforted by what looks likes a father figure. The last man sitting at the table also looks very troubled but silent over what he seeing. Lastly the boy closing the bird cage seems to be saddened about what he seeing. This painting displays so much life and movement because of the chaos projected and crossing of personalities within this one painting. All ten people within the work make us question how we see the experiment taking place.


 Reference from other art/ films/ animation

'The execution of Lady Jane Grey' - Paul Delaroche (1833)

‘The execution of Lady Jane Grey’ – Paul Delaroche (1833)

Another painting that I feel reminds me of Joseph Wright painting is: ‘The execution of Lady Jane Grey’ by Paul Delaroche (1833) – When I look at this painting it may not contain the same eerie atmosphere that Wright creates however the reactions of those around the ‘experiment’ (execution of Lady Jane Grey) reminds me of ‘an experiment on a bird in the air pump.’  The characters surrounding each express their emotions through body language and facial expressions just just like the other painting  – because of this, both painting display such life because all the characters have been used to create a scene so life like. Furthermore this painting by Delaroche uses a dark lighting against a contrast of her white and pure dress and skin. She is the focus of the painting immediately as we look into the scene – we have to look around at the people and hints (axe) to fully grasp what is about to take place. The same theme of life and death.


The others

The Others (2001)

A séance is a exercise where a group of people sit around a table and try to call upon the spirits. A séance like the one within the film The Others (above) look very similar to the layout of the painting ‘An experiment on a bird in the air pump’ – at a time when religion was considered holy and common among many the use of science – or trying to contact a spirit would have been deemed ‘evil’ and both parties are performing within darkness – as though to hide what they are doing. The film ‘The Others’ starring Nicole Kidman reminds me of this painting. In particular the scene when the family are doing the séance- the old lady reminds me of the scientist in the painting. She is conducting a séance to the spirits – and those around her are unfamiliar with, just like those in the painting who are unfamiliar with the experiment. However the biggest connection is the layout of the scene which seems almost identical to that off this painting. The people sit in a circle around a round table with a single candle in a dark room. The old lady sits directly in front of the camera. In addition this particular scene is supposed to be from the character of Nicole Kidman (watching from the other side of the room) – as we take on her view it reminds me of the painting which uses the composition to invite the viewer to the table just like this film. The lady is trying to contact a spirit. The thriller the Others is about a lady that lives in a large manor house in England with her two children that are allergic to the light (Post first world war) because this the film uses a lot of darkness it creates a scary and unsettling atmosphere (like the dramatic light used in many of Joseph Wright’s paintings.) – the film deals with ghosts again similar to the mystical feel we get from ‘An experiment on a bird in the air pump.’


Pirates of the Caribbean

Pirates of the Caribbean (2006)

The scene in the Pirates of Caribbean (Above) really reminds me of this painting. Although there is not any connection with the layout the full moon has been used as a curse. When the pirates are touched by the moonlight then they become dead corpses and skeletons. This very scene has a very eerie feel, very unnatural. The moon in this scene has been used very sutterly similar to the painting but the presence is still very powerful.  I’ve included this clip so that you can understand how the lead lady (Keira Knightly) reacts to seeing a sight quite unhuman – beyond her – her reaction is also important in setting this scene as well as the pirate which walks forward and reveals the curse. It just highlights the scientist experimenting on the bird in order to show science to the small family people. Futhermore the setting is dark and frightening as she the curse unveils itself to Knightly and us the audience for the first time.(Watch and see for yourselves.)



The Pagemaster (1994)


The Pagemaster (1994)

The Pagemaster is a fantasy created in 1994 – it is a film that uses live action into animation. The main plot is about a boy that goes to a library and goes through many classics including the famous novel, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. The particular scene has always haunted me as it is used to depict the horror genre. I decided to include this within my reference as the lighting has been in this scene to enhance the fear and the change of the character. Furthermore the potion he takes just reminds me of the painting and the scientist in that scene with all of his beakers. It shows how science can be depicted as a deadly and dangerous medium (just as science seems to be considered witchcraft in the painting this scene in the famous Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde also highlights this.)


Harry Potter

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) 

The scene in the Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban when the train loses power and the Dementors are introduced, the atmosphere immediately changes from a casual scene of friends talking to a dark and frightening experience for the characters and the audience. The layout throughout the scene is very similar to the painting – it shows how this composition is common when trying to depict a group of characters together – and by doing this here, we feel as though we in inside of the carriage and watching/experience the terror for ourselves. As well as crowding and emphasizing how small and vulnerable they are in this small carriage. In addition this lighting of bright blue casting light onto the characters reminds me of Joseph Wright’s Painting once more.

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