What caught my attention at the National Gallery?

Yes, I know all the primary pages of my website need to be updated. Yes, I know I need to share a bit about upcoming plans and projects. I know all that, but I’m still making my first post in months a blog post about something completely out-of-the-blue, because education is the science of relations, and sometimes it’s messy and unorganized. But “take time to smell the roses,” right? And take time to share a fascinating painting most of us are unlikely to encounter.

My primary purpose for being in London, of course, was to conduct the “Large Room” seminar, and that was a wonderful day for everyone there, including myself. I had a few more days in London to see things, and of course the National Gallery was a don’t-miss visit. I have been there before, but my family had not, so most of our visit was focused on allowing them to see what they most wanted to see (Da Vinci paintings for my daughter, and all the Impressionists for my husband). I just wandered along behind them with no particular agenda of my own, but one painting arrested my attention and left me thinking about it for a long time afterward.

It’s kind of gruesome, but this was the painting:


It’s called “An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump” by Joseph Wright of Derby, and it is not the art/style that interested me, but the subject matter. A scientist, who looks for all the world like an archetypical “mad scientist” is performing a demonstration/experiment in which a bird in a globe is being subjected to a vacuum–all the air (or most of it) has been removed from the globe, and the bird is expiring. Science! Look at the attitudes of the people around him–the sensitive girls who are in obvious distress but are urged to look anyway, the youth who is working the bellows, but casts his eyes back to see, because he can’t suppress his fascination. There are the two young men watching intently, one of them holding a stop watch to measure the length of time the process takes. There is the older man with his head in hand, pondering something to himself, and that couple in the background who obviously have eyes only for each other and couldn’t care less about the whole thing. And that mad scientist? His hand is on the apparatus–the bird’s life in entirely in his hands–and he’s looking straight at you, the viewer, as if to ask, “and what do you think about all this?”

“All this” of course is science–new and fascinating, and educational, with so much potential to bring new knowledge and new technology into the world. This was painted in 1768, just on the cusp of the Industrial Revolution. The whole question of whether or not the knowledge to be gained by science is worth the price that has to be paid is asked in this picture. What should our attitude be?

I was captivated by it. I don’t think there is an easy or simple answer, and I don’t think the world has stopped asking this question yet. But I also don’t think it had ever occurred to me that the matter could be expressed by a painting.

So, of all the amazing paintings in the National Gallery, this is the one that caught my eye and gave me the most to think about. Not admire, exactly. The painting as a work of art didn’t even enter into my thoughts. It was the painting as an expression of an idea that made me stop and think and look. I don’t think you can ask much more of an afternoon at an art gallery than that.