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Art theme: scenes of everyday life

Scenes of everyday life are known by art historians as 'genre' paintings. They usually focus on ordinary and unidentifiable people doing normal everday things. This is the opposite of what art historians call 'history' paintings where the artist shows a specific scene from history or myth. However, the image in this lesson isn't an everyday scene – in fact it's quite extraordinary!

Contextual background for teachers

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

The eighteenth century was an age of discovery in Britain – entrepreneurs emerged and like-minded people formed societies. One of these was The Lunar Society of Birmingham, a group of inspirational men (and it was just men) who debated science, philosophy, the arts and commerce before travelling back home by moonlit carriages. This artwork is Wright's way of sharing scientific ideas with everyone, not just a select few, and showing the reactions of ordinary people.

Wright of Derby specialised in candlelit pictures, and this is the largest that he painted. The bird is placed in a glass container and the air is then pumped out. 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.

Look, describe and discuss

Open a full-screen version of the zoomable image in a new window.

Ask your students to describe the artwork, encouraging them to simply say what they can see.

You can start by showing the whole image, and then use the zoom feature to explore details of the painting. Or you might like to start by using the zoom feature to show a detail from the image, and then zoom out to see more.

Encourage your students to look carefully – this is their superpower! It's best to not give too much background information about the artwork at this stage, so students can develop their own ideas and opinions.

An audio description of the painting is available to listen to. It is accompanied by a full written transcript which can also be used to describe the painting.

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?
  • What do you notice about the people in the painting? Can we learn anything about their different characters?
  • What time of day is it? How can you tell? Does the lighting create a certain mood or feeling?
  • Is it an interesting or frightening experience for the people gathered at the table?
  • What do you think you would be able to smell if you were transported into the painting?

Questions from The Superpower of Looking Kit

Now we can start to explore the 'elements' of the painting.

For this artwork, you will focus on:

Ask your students to evidence their points:

  • where exactly are they looking when they make a statement?
  • can everybody see what they see?
  • slow down, take time to really look closely

You can introduce knowledge from the contextual background for teachers while asking these bespoke questions with helpful responses which can be found in the teachers' notes.

Everyone learning

You can find out more about The Superpower of Looking® SEND/ASD/ALN approach on the Superpower homepage.

Now it's time to explore the artwork in different ways. This list of sensory activities encourages students to apply their learning and can suit a variety of learning needs.


  • Design and sketch a science experiment. What would students like to find out more about?
  • Encourage students to reflect on how they might feel if they were in the scene, watching the bird in the air pump. Students could identify the character they feel most closely expresses their feelings and sketch them in their sketchbook.



  • Listen to an excerpt of these sonatas for harpsichord and violin. They were composed by Johann Christian Bach (son of the much more famous J. S. Bach) who moved to London in the 1760s. This music was popular at the time Joseph Wright of Derby was painting An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump. Do students think this music suits the mood of the painting? Why? Or why not?

  • Listen to the audio description of the painting.



  • Challenge students to identify from the painting things which are soft, hard, shiny, matte, rough and smooth.



  • Recreate the scene in your classroom by making the room as dark as possible. Gather ten students around a table and illuminate them with torches. The rest of the class can help position the characters into their poses.
  • Unfreeze the scene. Students can then move in character. What might they do and say next?



  • In pairs, ask students to think of adjectives to describe the feelings of the characters in this painting. How many different emotions are shown here?
  • A student secretly chooses a character from the portrait. They make a noise or say something in character, and the class tries to identify who they are from the painting. Students could also answer questions in character to help their peers identify them.

Final stage: review

Ask your students to:

  • share their sketchbooks in groups and discuss the 'elements' they have identified
  • choose an element/aspect they find most interesting about the artwork and record it in their sketchbooks
  • choose their own name/s for the title of the artwork
  • think of a question they would like to ask the artist



You have now completed this lesson resource on The Superpower of Looking.

There are more resources in this theme to try – have a look at the 'next lessons' section below.

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