I know this painting from when I was a kid. I think it was in one of those Time Life books, of which we has piles, rescued from pulping at some point along the paper recycling process. There were a lot of good books coming from that way. It might have been in Life Science Library, or maybe Life Nature Library, but either way I stared at it often, and it’s engraved in my memory.
It’s a beautiful painting, An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, and harrowing. Even more so stumbling on it in The National Gallery. There’s nothing better than turning a corner and bumping into paintings you’ve know your whole life but this time they’re real. The light is sublime, one of Joseph Wright of Derby’s greatest strengths, and I love how my eyes circulate around the composition, from the moon to the boy’s face, clockwise past the girl covering her eyes in horror, past the glowing glass bowl obscuring the light source behind, up the faces in profile, over the scientist — or charlatan — who stares directly at me, and finally back to the young girl. She’s comforting the older girl, or maybe also on the verge of looking away, but for the moment, she’s riveted. She sees death, science, technology, and she’s all there. She’s the only person we see actually looking at the glass air pump, paying unqualified attention to it and the white cockatoo suffocating inside. There are others who are looking, the trio on the lower left, but we see them only from behind, or in profile, and none of their attention is as sharp as hers. Her face though, it’s front on, closest to the light, the brightest and most central. I look at this painting and think, “There’s a scientist,” even as she is before vivisection. It’s the emotion on her face that balances this horror at power and death with dispassionate curiosity. She’s taking it all in, and of all those present around this table, she’s the only one thinking.
The bird though. This painting was done in 1768, the British Empire was about to get booted from the Americas and just before invading Australasia. It looks like a cockatoo, whose habitat is Australia and north through Indonesia and Philippines. A lot of the art from this period features wildlife brought back from expeditions, more frequently used as exotic signifiers (like the Dinglinger Werkstatt in Dresden) of dominion, but this work is naturalistic, yet has this rare and exotic bird from a distant land being snuffed out. Exotic signifiers, eh.
As for the girl, I hope shortly after the moment in the painting, she smashed the glass, grabbed the cockatoo, kicked the ‘scientist’ in the nuts, ran off with the boy in the background — cos he looks like he’s handy with equipment and would make a good lab assistant — and did mad science and invention, changing the world.