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Candlelit scene by Godfried Schalcken During his apprenticeship and early career Wright concentrated on portraiture. By , he was an accomplished portrait artist, and his group portrait James Shuttleworth, his Wife and Daughter is acknowledged as his first true masterpiece. Benedict Nicolson suggests that Wright was influenced by the work of Thomas Frye ; in particular by the 18 bust-length mezzotints which Frye completed just before his death in There was a long history of painting candlelit scenes in Western art, although as Wright had not at this date travelled abroad, there remains uncertainty as to what paintings he might have seen in the original, as opposed to prints.
Nicolson, who made studies of both Wright and other candlelight painters such as the 17th-century Utrecht Caravaggisti , thought their paintings, among the largest in the style, those most likely to have influenced Wright. However Judy Egerton wonders if he could have seen any, preferring as influences the far smaller works of the Leiden fijnschilder Godfried Schalcken — , whose reputation was much greater in the early 18th century than subsequently.
Viewing the Gladiator was greatly admired; but his next painting, A Philosopher giving that Lecture on the Orrery, in which a Lamp is put in place of the Sun normally known by the shortened form A Philosopher Giving a Lecture on the Orrery or just The Orrery , caused a greater stir, as it replaced the Classical subject at the centre of the scene with one of a scientific nature. Viewing sculpture by candlelight, when the contours showed well and there might even be an impression of movement from the flickering light, was a fashionable practice described by Goethe.
In some respects the Orrery and Air Pump subjects resembled conversation pieces , then largely a form of middle-class portraiture, though soon to be given new status when Johann Zoffany began to paint the royal family in about Given their solemn atmosphere however, and as it seems none of the figures are intended to be understood as portraits even if models may be identified , the paintings can not be regarded as conversation pieces.
Figures thought to be portraits of Burdett and Ferrers feature in the painting, Burdett taking notes and Ferrers seated with his son next to the orrery. The witnesses display various emotions: Individuals are concerned for each other: It has also been suggested that he may be drawing the curtains to block out the light from the full moon.
An earlier oil sketch showed the demonstrator in a more reassuring pose. The bird here was a common songbird. In this sketch it is obvious that the bird will survive, and thus the composition lacks the power of the final version.
The figures beside the bird have been compared to some late medieval Trinities. The cockatoo would have been a rare bird at the time, "and one whose life would never in reality have been risked in an experiment such as this".
The air pump itself is rendered in exquisite detail, a faithful record of the designs in use at the time.
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The powerful central light source creates a chiaroscuro effect. The light illuminating the scene has been described as "so brilliant it could only be the light of revelation". Hockney believes that many of the Old Masters used optical equipment to assist in their painting, and suggests that Wright may have used lenses to transfer the image to paper rather than painting directly from the scene, as he believes the pattern of shadows thrown by the lighting could have been too complicated for Wright to have captured so accurately without assistance.
Nicolson detects the strong influence of Frye throughout the picture.
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So, although he had already been in England at the time the Air Pump was produced, it is unlikely that he was an influence on Wright. While ground-breaking, they are regarded as peculiar to Wright, whose unique style has been explained in many ways.
While never a member himself, he had strong connections with the Lunar Society: An Aylesbury physician, patron of the arts and hedonist, Bates was a diehard member of the Hellfire Club who, despite his excesses, lived to be over This was reprinted throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, in increasingly weak impressions.
The painting was transferred to the Tate Gallery in , although it was actually on loan to Derby Museum and Art Gallery between and It was reclaimed by the National Gallery from the Tate in It was last cleaned in It has even spawned pastiches and parodies: