An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump

Kids’ passion for art: National Gallery London puts on Take One Picture

What happens when you put kids in front of artwork?

Well… generally nothing, but as it happens, not if they visit the National Gallery right in the middle of London.

They’re putting on Take One Picture, a unique program to get kids into artwork in a particularly contemporary way: with their phones!

Kids from around the ages of 1-6 are invited to focus on one of the paintings in the gallery and respond creatively to its themes and subject matter, historical context, or composition.

Purposed to promote the visual arts across the curriculum and inspiring a lifelong love of art, this year the National Gallery chose An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768) by Joseph Wright ‘of Derby’ as the kids’ inspiration and it’s easy to see why.

The work An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump depicts a travelling scientist demonstrating the formation of a vacuum by withdrawing air from a flask containing a white cockatoo. Air pumps were developed in the 17th century and were relatively familiar by Wright’s day.

It was chosen for the wide range of subjects that are explored: the depiction of a scientific invention and its entertainment value, the human drama happening in a night-time domestic setting, and the references to the Age of Enlightenment.

The bird will die if the demonstrator continues to deprive it of oxygen, and Wright (1734–1797) leaves us in doubt as to whether or not the cockatoo will be reprieved. The painting reveals a wide range of individual reactions, from the frightened children, the reflective philosopher, the excited interest of the youth on the left, to the indifferent young lovers concerned only with each other. The figures are dramatically lit by a single candle, while in the window the moon appears. On the table in front of the candle is a glass containing a skull.

The work is deep, fun to look at, engaging for the kids and does what the world, largely needs more of: education in the arts!

See more at the website of the National Gallery – or better yet, head there yourself!

National Gallery London

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