At the Huntington Museum, a painting by Joseph Wright of Derby is puzzling : NPR


Installation view of Joseph Wright of Derby’s An experiment on a bird in the air pumpin “Science and the Sublime: A Masterpiece of Joseph Wright of Derby”.

The Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens


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The Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens

At the Huntington Museum, a painting by Joseph Wright of Derby is puzzling : NPR

Installation view of Joseph Wright of Derby’s An experiment on a bird in the air pumpin “Science and the Sublime: A Masterpiece of Joseph Wright of Derby”.

The Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens

Two beloved paintings swapped locations for a while. One went from California to London; the other, from London to California. No passport was involved. But the two museums where the paintings are kept – the Huntington Art Museum near Los Angeles and the National Gallery in London – welcome visitors to view these masterpieces.

Best known is a portrait of a rosy-cheeked boy, possibly 15, dressed in a satin blue suit with matching blue bows on his shoes.

At the Huntington Museum, a painting by Joseph Wright of Derby is puzzling : NPR

The blue boy (circa 1770) by Thomas Gainsborough (1727–1788). Post-conservation photo.

Christina Milton O’Connell/The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens


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Christina Milton O’Connell/The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens

At the Huntington Museum, a painting by Joseph Wright of Derby is puzzling : NPR

The blue boy (circa 1770) by Thomas Gainsborough (1727–1788). Post-conservation photo.

Christina Milton O’Connell/The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens

Of British nationality, he had spent a century in Huntington, near Pasadena, California. When he first left London in 1921, 90,000 people came to say goodbye. Some cried. Still, he had a good run at the Huntington, the museum’s star.

“It’s the one thing everyone wants to see,” says Huntington director Christina Nielsen. And maybe bring some pictures of him home, for keepsakes. “There are lamps, pepper mills, ashtrays,” she said.

Thomas Gainsborough’s 1770 painting has been reproduced on all sorts of tchotchkes. And why not? The kid is adorable and is well received in England. “blue boycurrently impresses London audiences,” according to Nielsen. Meanwhile, the National Gallery in London loaned the Huntington one of its most popular 18th century paintings: the massive 1768 work by Joseph Wright of Derby, An experiment on a bird in the air pump.

At the Huntington Museum, a painting by Joseph Wright of Derby is puzzling : NPR

Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797), An experiment on a bird in the air pump1768, oil on canvas, 72 x 96 1/16 in. Presented by Edward Tyrrell, 1863.

© Image courtesy of the National Gallery, London


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© Image courtesy of the National Gallery, London

A mad “scientist” – probably a traveling lecturer – with a flowing red robe and long, shiny white hair holds a large glass bubble. There is a beautiful white bird inside the bubble. A lid makes the bubble airtight. The experimenter turns the crank on a vacuum pump which is attached to the jar – stick with me. It pumps air. The bird looks distressed.

“The poor cockatoo is unable to breathe! exclaims Melinda McCurdy, Curator of British Art at Huntington. “And if the air is not returned to the jar soon, this bird will unfortunately die,” she laughs.

What’s so funny? Two little girls at the round wooden speaker table are horrified! One covers his face, can’t look. Their grandfather tries to comfort them. Curators point out that Charles Darwin’s grandfather is also there; he is watching with other science fans. A young couple, however, look at each other. “They really don’t pay attention to the science experiment,” McCurdy says. Of course not! They are in love.

the more interested of the 10 observers, in a green jacket, holds a big watch. He knows how long it will take before the bird suffocates.

“Hopefully he’ll look at his watch and say, ‘time to let some air in’,” McCurdy said, laughing again.

Well, that would be a relief, torturous as it sounds. What’s happening ? What are the guy in the red dress and his audience doing?

It’s a science experiment. They study the nature of the air: what it does, what depends on it. 1768 was the Age of Enlightenment, a time of empirical observation, experimentation, technology and showbiz. The old man is not a real scientist. He and others like him are showmen, artists.

“These guys were moving around and doing demonstrations in people’s homes,” McCurdy says. That’s how they made their living. So the cockatoo couldn’t die; they were expensive. The pseudo-scientist could lose money by replacing them. Thus the watch, the release, the bird goes up in the big bubble filled with air.

At the Huntington Museum, a painting by Joseph Wright of Derby is puzzling : NPR

Installation view of Benjamin Martin’s The Description and use of a new portable tabletop air pump and condensing motor. With a selection of capital experiences textbook, in “Science and the Sublime: A Masterpiece by Joseph Wright of Derby.”

The Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens


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The Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens

At the Huntington Museum, a painting by Joseph Wright of Derby is puzzling : NPR

Installation view of Benjamin Martin’s The Description and use of a new portable tabletop air pump and condensing motor. With a selection of capital experiences textbook, in “Science and the Sublime: A Masterpiece by Joseph Wright of Derby.”

The Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens

And the Brits bought their own air pumps to do their own experiments with – instruction booklets included. (I mean, there was no real housewives in 1768!) It was real entertainment at the time.

“And if you notice the speaker looking directly at the audience,” McCurdy points out. “He’s the only one looking us in the eye. It’s almost like he’s asking us, ‘Do I have to let the air in?'”

Yes! Let the air in! And then thank Joseph Wright of Derby for capturing the scene in his masterpiece, currently on display at the Huntington Art Museum in California.

Art Where You’re At is an informal series showcasing online offerings at museums you may not be able to visit.


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