An Air of History: Joseph Wright's and Robert Boyle's Air Pump Narratives
This article offers a new account of Joseph Wright's celebrated painting, Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768), by identifying the painting's overlooked anomaly: the anachronistic air pump at the center of the composition. The glass globe containing the white cockatoo, I argue, evokes Robert Boyle's first experimental vacuum, the machina Boyleana, 1659, and the seventeenth-century tradition of vanitas still life painting. The tensions between scientific and religious conceptions of emptiness, which the painting stages, inform Wright's experiment with an equivocal visual idiom and approach to history painting that simultaneously seeks to capture the discursive complexity of a cultural moment and situate that cultural moment in history.
Baudot, Laura. Fall 2012. "Air of History: Joseph Wright's and Robert Boyle's Air Pump Narratives." Eighteenth-Century Studies 46(1): 1-28.
Johns Hopkins University Press