The ideas and concerns of the Enlightenment period can be seen in other forms of art as well as in literature.
Below you can see Experiment on a bird in the Air Pump by Joseph Wright of Derby. This picture was painted in 1768, and is a good example of the art of the time.
In the picture we see a family group gathered round a table to see a demonstration of a vacuum pump. The pump is extracting air from the class 'bubble' which contains a cockatoo. As the air is pumped out of the bubble the cockatoo will die. The demonstrator stands just to the left of centre, explaining the device to his audience. Around him we see various members of the household. To the left of the picture are a pair of young lovers. Next to them are two brothers of the family, the elder acting as time-keeper for the experiment, and the other, a young boy, leaning round him to see what is happening. On the other side of the table, the father of the family compforts, and explains the experiment to, his two young daughters, who are horrified and upset. An old man sits and gazes into the candle on the table. In the background, a boy shutters the windows and watches proceedings over his shoulder.
There are a number of features of this picture which relate to or offer comment on the thinking and ideals of the Enlightenment:
- Science enlightens - almost literally. Wright's use of light is not only typical of him, it is also symbolic - the light in the picture shines out onto the people in the room from the table, where the scientific experiment is located. We can just make out a candle, distorted and obscured, but the light seems to radiate from the scientific apparatus itself, illuminating the people who are otherwise in heavy shadow. Perhaps it is significant that the servant-boy is shutting out the natural light of the moon.
- Knowledge increases power and control. The fact that the family are gathered for an evening's entertainment watching a scientific experiment reflects the Enlightnment preoccupation with increasing the sum of human knowledge. It was though that by understanding the natural world and ourselves we could come closer to controlling them. Here, the demonstrator's knowledge gives him the power of life and death - he can kill, or reprieve, the bird in the air pump.
- Knowledge is not class-bound. In an age where the educated middle classes stirred the lower classes against the powerful aristocracy, knowledge, understanding and education were political weapons. Their reach was greater than ever before, in this painting extending to the servant-boy in the background who is fortunate enough to be present, and the female children of the family (however much their intrinsic squeamishness and emotional nature may prevent them from understanding the import of the sight).
- People are still people. Wright could not have forseen the terrible demonstration of human nature seen in the post-Revolutionary Terror in France. His picture does show, however, that the lessons it taught were not entirely unknown beforehand (people did not function in an emotional vacuum, living as automata powered by reason alone): the young man and woman on the left of the picture are utterly absorbed in each other - to them the emotional world is more significant than the scientific.