Joseph Wright of Derby,
Joseph Wright of Derby, "An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump," 1768. Oil on canvas, 72 x 96 1/16 in. National Gallery, London.

One of the great masterpieces from the Age of Enlightenment, Joseph Wright of Derby’s “An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump” (1768) will be shown at The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens through May 23, 2022, in an installation titled “Science and the Sublime: A Masterpiece by Joseph Wright of Derby.” The monumental 6-by-8-foot work will be lent by the National Gallery in London, where it is one of that institution’s most popular paintings.

From the organizers:

The powerful scene depicts a small group of people gathered around a candlelit table on which a lecturer in natural history is performing a scientific experiment, namely the creation of a vacuum, as described by chemist Robert Boyle in the 17th century. As air is slowly removed from a glass jar, the fate of a cockatiel inside the jar hangs in the balance.

The observers’ reactions range from fascination to dismay. In Wright’s hands, the tableau is an exercise in the sublime, a moment of extreme tension recast as a dramatic meditation on the fragility of life. At the same time, the experiment being performed relates to advances in the fields of science and medicine, making the scene a celebration of human achievement.

The loan of “Bird in the Air Pump” is part of a reciprocal exchange with the National Gallery, where The Huntington’s most famous work, Thomas Gainsborough’s iconic portrait of “The Blue Boy” (ca. 1770), will be on display for London museumgoers for the first time in a century (through May 15, 2022).

“We’re very excited to be partnering with the National Gallery for the first time in these reciprocal loans, which give audiences on both sides of the Atlantic a rare opportunity to view important works that have strong connections to each museum’s respective collections,” said Christina Nielsen, the Hannah and Russel Kully Director of the Art Museum at The Huntington. “It’s also a wonderful opportunity to collaborate within The Huntington’s own collecting areas to forge deeper connections between the holdings of the Art Museum and the Library.”

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