A mad scientist and his bird in a bubble: The story behind a peculiar painting

Susan Stamberg on NPR:

Two beloved paintings have swapped locations for a while. One went from California to London; the other, from London to California. No passports were involved. But the two museums where the paintings are housed — the Huntington Art Museum near Los Angeles, and London’s National Gallery — are welcoming visitors to see these masterpieces. The best known is a portrait of a rosy-cheeked fellow, maybe 15 years old, in a blue satiny suit with matching blue bows on his shoes.

A British fellow, he’d spent a century in the Huntington, near Pasadena, Calif. When he first left London back in 1921, 90,000 people came to say goodbye. Some wept. Still, he’s had a good run at the Huntington, the star of the museum. “It’s the one thing everybody wants to see,” says the Huntington’s director, Christina Nielsen. And maybe take home images of him, for souvenirs. “There are lamps, pepper grinders, ashtrays,” she says. Thomas Gainsborough’s 1770 painting has been reproduced on all kinds of tchotchkes. And why not? The kid’s adorable, and getting a nice welcome back in England. “Blue Boy, right now, is wowing London audiences,” according to Nielsen.

Meanwhile the National Gallery in London loaned the Huntington one of their most popular 18th century paintings: Joseph Wright of Derby’s massive 1768 work, An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump. A mad “scientist” — probably a traveling lecturer — with a flowing red robe and glowing long, white hair holds up a big glass bubble. There’s a beautiful white bird inside the bubble. A lid makes the bubble airtight. The experimenter turns the crank on a vacuum pump that’s attached to the jar — stay with me. He pumps out the air. The bird looks distressed.

More here.