‘The Blue Boy’ for ‘A Bird’: The Joseph Wright painting at the center of a Huntington swap
In exchange for loaning ‘The Blue Boy’ to London, the Huntington is negotiating the loan of a monumental painting by Joseph Wright of Derby.
A monumental painting by Joseph Wright of Derby, sometimes called Britain’s “painter of the Industrial Revolution” and “painter of the Enlightenment,” is under negotiation for loan to the Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, The Times has learned.
The painting is “An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump,” a dramatically lighted scene involving a large cast of characters witnessing a life-or-death scientific test. Wright painted it in 1768, when he was 34.
The reciprocal loan would be in exchange for Thomas Gainsborough’s “The Blue Boy,” set to begin a controversial four-month exhibition in January at London’s National Gallery. Wright and Gainsborough were British contemporaries working in the late 1700s.
A who’s who of nine international conservators of European Old Master paintings, meeting at the Huntington in 2018, warned against letting the iconic Gainsborough travel, asserting the risk of potential structural damage to the fragile, 250-year-old canvas.
Huntington officials proceeded with the loan arrangement, citing approval the following year from a second panel of three North American museum curators and three conservators whose identities have not been revealed. The 2019 panelists were guaranteed anonymity, according to a Huntington spokesperson, to encourage them to speak freely about the plan.
Melinda McCurdy, curator of British art at the Huntington, described the Wright painting as “a tour de force of the sublime.” In a telephone interview, she said that, should a deal be struck for the loan, the museum hopes to build a small exhibition around the scientific subject matter at the heart of the Wright painting, incorporating 18th century British scientific writings from the Huntington Library’s extensive collection.
Also possible for inclusion is Wright’s fiery landscape painting of Mt. Vesuvius erupting, an elaborately amplified version of what he likely witnessed during a 1774 visit to Naples, Italy. The painting was acquired by the Huntington in 1997.
A spokesman for the National Gallery could not be reached.
Huntington Art Museum officials are overruling their conservation experts’ advice by lending the fragile painting to Britain’s National Gallery.
Wright’s painting, “An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump,” dates from 1768, approximately the same time as “The Blue Boy,” painted around 1770. At 6 feet by 8 feet, Wright’s much larger canvas brings the grand scale of history painting to an unusual contemporary scene.
Six adults and four children are gathered in a circular formation around a table in a makeshift science lab to witness a volatile experiment in which air will be drawn out of a large glass vessel to create a vacuum. The children are variously terrified and inquisitive. The adults muse, ponder, admonish the kids to pay attention and pantomime the experiment’s drama.
The focal point is a white cockatoo inside the vessel near the apex of the composition, sure to be asphyxiated as a demonstration of the absence of air in a vacuum. An exotic and expensive import from its native Australia or South Pacific, where the British Empire was beginning to expand, the white bird alludes to a dove.
A Christian symbol of the Holy Spirit here succumbs to the power of science, natural law and imperial might. Above it is the raised hand of the naturalist, who looks straight ahead to confront viewers with the life-or-death question. A young couple at the left, indifferent to the laboratory mystery and focused instead on each other, enact the enigma of human love.
“An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump” is a so-called “candle painting,” dramatically illuminated by a flame hidden behind a glass beaker on the lab table. What appears to be a specimen lung — or, some suggest, a dissolving skull — floats in the beaker’s light-diffusing liquid.
Wright transforms Caravaggio’s theatrical chiaroscuro lighting technique, popularized in the 16th and 17th centuries as a religious simile for spiritual illumination, into a metaphor of rational enlightenment.
Although trained in London, Wright worked mostly in Derby, where he was born in 1734 and died in 1797. He was affiliated with a group of intellectuals dubbed the Lunar Society, who met monthly on the night of the full moon. Outside the window in the National Gallery painting, a moon glows brightly in the cloud-streaked indigo sky.
The first major British artist not to maintain his studio primarily in London, Wright is often tagged as “of Derby.” The city is in England’s industrial midlands, a wealthy 18th century center of natural history study, scientific experiment and rising factory production 125 miles north of London. Among his clients and associates were Josiah Wedgwood, who industrialized the production of pottery, and Erasmus Darwin, a physician-botanist-poet and the grandfather of evolutionary scientist Charles Darwin.
The Huntington’s permanent collection includes two other Wright easel paintings in addition to “Vesuvius From Portici” and three drawings by the artist.
Last year, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Brentwood added “Two Boys With a Bladder” to two canvasses by the artist in its collection. The Getty’s newly rediscovered Wright candle painting shows light glowing through a toy made from an inflated pig’s bladder.
Then-UK arts minister Helen Whately tried unsuccessfully to block an export license, describing it as “of paramount importance” to prevent the painting from leaving Britain. The painting went on view at the Getty just as the COVID-19 pandemic closures began.
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