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This painting is a reproduction of an original painting by Joseph Wright of Derby entitled:

"Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump".

The original painting was done in 1768. It depicts the reactions of a group of people to a scientific experiment performed at the home of a wealthy squire in the English Midlands. The experiment is being carried out by an itinerant lecturer of natural philosophy, as scientists were called at this time. By the 1760's, air pump experiments had become the pi`ece de re'sistance of many travelling scientific lecturers. The usual experiment with the air pump consisted of placing a living animal in a glass globe attached to a hand pump. The, the air is pumped out, to demonstrate the animal's dependence on air to live. This experiment had been performed over and over again for about one hundred and eighteen years at the time of this painting, since Otto von Guericke first invented the apparatus. The first English air pump was made for Robert Boyle in 1758. Boyle knew that animal life depended on air but it was not until the 1780's that Lavoisier discovered through a series of experiments why. Lavoisier who undertook this series of experiments for the purpose of overthrowing the phlogiston theory, discovered that it was oxygen in the air that supported life and he demonstrated this by drawing an analogy between cellular respiration and simple combustion. Until Lavoisier made this discovery in was not known why or how air mixed with blood during the lesser circulation through the lungs. As a result many physicians of the 17th and 18th century were reluctant to accept Harvey's 1627 description of the circulation of the blood until Lavoisier's discovery. Since this painting pre-dates Lavoisier's experiments, it should be understandable why they were still doing the same experiment for 120 years with very little progress in their understanding.

In Wright's picture, the bird, a pet cockatoo of the two young girls has been taken from its cage and placed in the air pump's glass globe receiver. The bird's cage has been hoisted back into position next to the window by one of the young boys in attendance, who is eager to help. Air has already been pumped from the receiver, by the lecturer who moves the handle back and forth which activates pistons encased in the barrels of the pump. The bird gasping for air sinks to the bottom of the glass globe receiver. The lecturer's hand is positioned on the stop-cock of the glass globe; if he turns it in time the bird will survive; if not, it will die.We are left uncertain of the outcome. The reactions of the people in attendance seated around the table vary. The two young girls appear frightened and sad at the impending death of their pet. The man comforting them appears to be their father, the squire, the owner of the country estate hosting this gathering. He may be re-assuring them or trying to maintain objectivity by explaining to the girls the scientific importance of the experiment and why it is necessary to sacrifice their pet. The man on the left side of the table sits with detached observation while he times the demise of the bird with a stop watch. The young boy stares upward with fascination in anticipation of the bird's death. The man on the right side of the table stares absently forward, possibly pondering the necessity of this experiment and the inevitability of death. Finally the young man and woman stare at each other with preoccupation and seem oblivious to the experiment. The lecturer stares ahead with a detached, other-worldly resolve. Adding to the atmosphere of this painting is the hidden light from the candle behind the large glass jar containing a cloudy liquid and what appears to be a skull. The hidden light creates strong contrasts on the faces in the darkened room.

 

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 18th Century Physician