Joseph Wright, as his suffix tells us was born in Derby and spent much of his life there, excepting spells in Liverpool, London, Bath and Italy. Derbyshire was one of the principal centres of the early Industrial Revolution and Wright knew many of those who helped to shape it. Some years after completing this picture, he was commissioned to paint Richard Arkwright’s likeness. Arkwright patented his water-frame, a machine for spinning cotton, in 1769 and installed a number of these machines in the first water-powered cotton mill, in Cromford, not far from Derby. Wright was also friendly with Erasmus Darwin and Josiah Wedgwood, two founder members of the influential Lunar Society, whose members (including James Watt and Matthew Boulton) met every month in Birmingham on the nearest Monday to the full moon, to discuss scientific matters and, most importantly, the practical application of science to manufacturing, medicine and education.
Trained as a portraitist, in the 1760s Wright began to paint dark candle-lit interiors and night scenes, influenced by the seventeenth-century Dutch followers of Caravaggio such as Rembrandt and Godfried Schalcken (who lived for a time in London in the 1690s). This stylistic direction combined with his interest in matters scientific spawned his famous scientific scenes in which striking lighting effects were used to heighten the drama.
At the centre of this composition are the two major players — the ‘natural philosopher’, or scientist as we would call him, and his victim, the cockatoo. The former, arrestingly God-like, engaging the viewer directly, exercises the power of life and death over the creature in the flask, which is close to the point of expiry, for the air pump on the table has produced a near vacuum inside the glass sphere. However, his left hand hovers near a valve at the top of the flask and, to the right, a boy is engaged in lowering a bird cage from its place near the ceiling; so we can expect that the valuable exotic bird will soon be reprieved.
Unaware of these preparations, two girls react to the experiment with understandable dismay while their father tries to offer a reasoned explanation (one senses without much success).
In the centre of the table, a skull is preserved in a milky solution contained within a large glass beaker behind which burns a candle, the source for the theatrical lighting. An older man stares at the skull and meditates on the transience of life and the certainty of eventual death. In the midst of the display of scientific enlightenment, this harks back to the ‘vanitas’ paintings of an earlier age but also chimes with the near death experience of the bird (beneath which the skull is exactly placed).
To the left a man is timing the experiment and a boy watches attentively. One could not so describe the couple behind the boy, who, far from being engrossed in the demonstration, only have eyes for each other; their future is ahead of them and they perhaps balance the older gentleman on the other side of the table in that their thoughts are most assuredly of life and love. They can be identified as Thomas Coltman and his future wife Mary and they married the year after this painting was completed. Wright was to paint them again in a double portrait two years after their marriage.
1765 Joshua Reynolds: Lady Sarah Bunbury Sacrificing to the Graces, Chicago, Art Institute
1769 Jean-Honoré Fragonard: Portrait of the Abbé de Saint-Non, Paris, Musée du Louvre
1770 Francesco Guardi: Venice: the Punta della Dogana with S Maria della Salute, London, National Gallery