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Scenes of everyday life

Scenes of everyday life – also known as 'genre' paintings – usually do the opposite of the History category by focusing on ordinary and unidentifiable people. The image focused on in this lesson, however, stretches this historical understanding a little in presenting a scene somewhat out of the ordinary!

An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768)

by Joseph Wright of Derby (1734–1797)

Medium: oil on canvas
Dimensions: H 183 x W 244 cm

The 'Derby' in Joseph Wright of Derby was probably a sign of the artist's pride in his hometown. Derby was famous for scientific advancement in the service of industry – a bit like Silicon Valley is now. In this age of discovery, entrepreneurs emerged and societies of like-minded people formed. The Lunar Society was one of them, a group of inspirational men who debated science, philosophy, the arts and commerce before travelling back home by moon-lit carriages. This work is Wright's way of sharing scientific ideas with everyone, not just a select few, and showing the reactions of ordinary people.

This is the largest candlelit picture – his speciality – that Wright of Derby painted. The bird is placed in a glass container from which the air is being pumped out. The drama is created by the suspense of not knowing whether the bird will die or whether the experimenter will let the air back in and allow the bird to live.

Tip: if you'd like more insight into the painting before teaching the lesson, an audio description is available, which has been developed for students with blindness or visual impairment to take part.

Stage 1: look, describe and discuss

An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump

An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump 1768

Joseph Wright of Derby (1734–1797)

The National Gallery, London

Show your students this painting and ask them: Are they interested or not interested? Why?

Ask them to describe the figures and what's going on in the background and around them.

Don't tell them too much about what the picture represents at this stage. Once you have interpreted an image, or been told what to see, it is difficult to look freshly and critically at it or appreciate each other's views. 

For students with blindness or visual impairment, an audio description of the painting is available to be listened to during this stage.

Tip: in class, use the zoom feature on the image below to look closer at details. You can open a full-screen version on The National Gallery's website.



Stage 2: nudge questions

Now when looking at the painting, ask more specific ('nudge') questions:

  • What do you think is going on here? Who or what does the artist want us to look at first?
  • Is this a good or bad experience for those gathered around the table? Is it an interesting or frightening experience? 
  • How are the characters and identities of the people in the painting expressed? Different ages? Genders? Classes? Relationships? Identify differing reactions.
  • Do their clothes or the setting tell us anything about their status?
  • What time of day is it? How can you tell? Does the lighting create a certain mood or feeling?

Activity: watch and discuss

In the following film, taxi driver and tour guide Rachel Martin-Peer uses her own 'Superpower of Looking' to explore An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump.

Watch the film with your students and discuss the following questions:

  • Did Rachel see anything you hadn't spotted yet?
  • What else did you notice about the painting when watching the film?
  • Rachel said that looking at the facial expressions in the painting reminds her of assessing how her customers feel when they enter her taxi. How do you think each figure in the painting feels? How can you tell?


Stage 3: Superpower Kit questions

Now we can start to explore the 'elements' of the painting. Use the Superpower Kit to ask questions about the work and spark a discussion.  

Focus on the following areas to help your students 'read' the image (click to open the relevant Superpower Kit section):




Ask your students to evidence their points, e.g. where exactly are they looking when they make a statement? Can everybody see what they see?

Stage 4: bespoke questions

To support those teaching The Superpower of Looking for the first time, this additional stage can be used when teaching the first lesson in each category.

During this stage, you can introduce knowledge from the context box while asking these bespoke questions on the painting. If you’ve already covered any questions through previous discussions, feel free to move on.

If it's required, guidance on what to look for can be found below the sets of questions.

Final stage: review

Ask your students: how interested are they in the image now? Why?

At this point, you may also want to give your students some time to record and review their observations in a sketchbook on their own or in pairs.


Cross-curricular activity: Science and Art & Design

Extend into a Science and Art & Design lesson by exploring light and shadow in An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump.

Firstly, introduce light and how it travels through different surfaces by watching the following video from BBC Teach: KS2 Science: Light, reflection and shadows from the Tardis

Looking at the painting once more, ask your students:

  • Where is the light source in the room?
  • Why are some parts of the figures' faces and bodies glowing in light, while other parts are in shadow?
  • Are there any examples of reflection in the painting?

Joseph Wright of Derby's paintings utilise a technique called chiaroscuro (pronounced 'kee-AR-uh-SKOOR-oh'). This literally means 'from light to dark' in Italian, and the technique has been used to create the realistic modelling of the figures' faces together with highly believable textures such as the folds in the fabric of their clothes. It also helps to create strong contrasts from light to dark which contribute to the mysterious mood of the scene. The faces appear illuminated from the darkness that surrounds them, which creates an almost three-dimensional 'pop' effect.

An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump

An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump 1768

Joseph Wright of Derby (1734–1797)

The National Gallery, London

Once you have introduced your class to chiaroscuro, split them into pairs or small groups and task them to pose for one another to recreate the different figures' dramatic tonal contrasts using light and shade. Students will need to consider where they position the sitter and the light source (e.g. using daylight through a window or an artificial source of light, such as a torch). They may want to take pictures of each pose using a tablet or digital camera.

You could extend this further by taking inspiration from Arnage Primary in Aberdeenshire who captured their exploration with light and dark in these chalk portraits on black paper for maximum contrast.

Exploring chiaroscuro with chalk on black paper

Exploring chiaroscuro with chalk on black paper


Alternatively, or additionally, watch and discuss the following film from The National Gallery and the Science Museum which explores the science behind An Experiment on the Bird in the Air Pump by explaining how atmospheric pressure works:

If you'd like to have a go at the 'No Pressure' activity mentioned in the above film, you can find it on the Science Museum's website.

You can also find a resource from The National Gallery focused on exploring this painting through Drama.

Comparison activity

To consolidate their understanding of light and shade in art, task your students with comparing and contrasting the following pictures.

The first is a painting by a master of chiaroscuro, Caravaggio (1571–1610), while the other is a contemporary photograph of Malala Yousafzai by photographer and filmmaker Shirin Neshat which also utilises the chiaroscuro technique. To what effect do they use this technique?

You may wish to support discussion with the following areas of the Superpower Kit: Light and Figures.

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