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Origin: Great Britain, England, London
OH: 19 1/8" x OW: 23 3/8" Plate H: 18 15/16" x Plate W: 23 3/16" Image H: 17 5/8" x Image W: 23 3/16"
Black and white mezzotint on laid paper
Museum Purchase
Acc. No. 1983-436
The lower margin reads: "A PHILOSOPHER SHEWING AN EXPERIMENT ON THE AIR PUMP./ From the Original Picture Painted by M.r Joseph Wright./ Joseph Wright pinxit./ J. Boydell excudit 1769./ Valentine Green del & fecit./ Published June 1769"
Label:The air pump was invented in the mid-seventeenth century but not developed in England for about one hundred years. It became a standard piece of equipment for scholars and philosophers, not only for the instruction of students but also for the entertainment of friends.

Birds were frequently used to show the basic pneumatic principle of the air pump. As air was exhausted from the large glass bowl, the bird placed in it would cease to function normally because of the lack of oxygen. In this mezzotint engraving after a 1769 painting by Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797), the artist captured the critical moment of the experiment, when the air would be readmitted for the bird to revive or it would die. The dramatic light and expressive figures heighten the sense of power gained by a greater understanding of scientific pneumatics.

Wright made a name for himself by exhibiting works called “Candle Lights” wherein the artist used the effect of chiaroscuro to create dramatic scenes illuminated by a single light source. This print after his work was done in mezzotint, a tonal intaglio printmaking technique that was to represent the highlights and depths of Wright’s work. Wright was a member of a group of individuals curious about science and philosophy later known as the Lunar Society.