Birds in Art: The Floating Feather 1680

Birds in Art: The Floating Feather 1680

Ahhhh.....Northern Renaissance Art. Be still my art-loving birding heart.

I have always had a soft spot for the paintings made in the cold North of Europe during the Renaissance (probably why I'm also team Stark in GOT). While the South had that soft Italian light to paint with, the North had just grey skies and candles. But the one thing they did have over their Southern counterparts was time. LOTS of time inside when it was just too cold out to spend perfecting their techniques and with all this time they have made arguably the greatest still life paintings in the history of the world. NBD, right?

What's always been interesting to me is the connection between the Northern artists and the Southern artists during this time period. Long before the days of jet travel, antibiotics or electricity, it was uncommon to travel and although some species were introduced and brought on ships, birds that we are all familiar with today either in real life or in images were a real rarity back then.

And around the same time that painters were perfecting the Golden Age of Art techniques, sneaking painting techniques across borders, explorers from Europe were setting sail around the world to colonize and lay claim for their country. They saw vastly different places than they were used to in Europe and this included plants and wildlife of different habitats. Often, the ships brought botanists and zoologists with them on board to record their findings. Specimens were often brought back to Europe on the ships, placed in zoos or menageries and became an exotic novelty for the people of Europe.

Which brings us to the Floating Feather, or more properly titled, A Pelican and Other Birds Near a Pool, painted around 1680 by the Dutch artist Melchior d'Hondecoeter. I should say I LOVE this painting. Often the subject of paintings in those days were religious or portraits of wealthy donors. This painting is a special treat and a real glimpse into what exotica was like in those days. And, if you look closely, you can see one of Australia's most infamous birds at the left, the Southern Cassoway. Remember, this was 1680 and there was no pinterest let alone photography, so artists had to rely on drawing and painting from life, taxidermied specimens or sculptures. So just how did a Southern Cassowary wind up in Northern Europe during the Renaissance? And look just to the Cassowary's right - there's an American flamingo. How did that get there too?

Since the painting hangs among the epicenter of Dutch masterpieces, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, I thought I would start there. It turns out that the painting was commissioned by the King of England, William III, for Het Loo, the palace of William and Mary which was in the Netherlands.

Before the commission, d'Hondecoeter had developed renown as a poultry painter and a couple of decades earlier had created a similarly composed painting of birds, including the Southern Cassowary and American Flamingo. Since the paintings are so similar, it's safe to infer that the earlier painting was where d'Hondecoeter painted the Southern Cassowary from life.

During the age of exploration, the Dutch East India Company was an enormously powerful transnational company considered by many to be the first corporation in the world, founded in 1602. And since they had a monopoly on the spice trade, they were extremely successful with outposts all over the world. As more and more parts of the globe were explored and colonized by European countries, exotica became its own form of wealth and a status symbol to be admired. Royal families created menageries and collected exotic birds and animals. One recorded instance of a Southern Cassowary mixed up in all of this was as a gift from the Dutch East India Company to Prince Johan Maurice of Nassau, Governor of the West India Company in 1607.

How many Southern Cassowary's or other Australian birds the menegaries of Europe held is lost to the pages of history, as they were not always recorded, although we can assume the answer would have been as many as the explorers could have successfully captured. But as all Australians know, Southern Cassowaries are not shy to put up a fight, so I hope they gave em' hell.

Okay, back to King William III and his menagerie. It was legendary and since Melchior d'Hondecoeter had developed a reputation for painting poulty, it can be assumed he was invited to visit and paint the birds in King William's aviary from life, making it likely his first painting of a Southern Cassowary would have been around 1650. He would have painted the American Flamingo at this time too. Further, it is even speculated that d'Hondecoeter himself began working for the Dutch East India Company as a painter to promote the spoils of Dutch expeditions. In fact, as his paintings found eager collectors, a new exoticism sweeped the low countries and created a greater demand for bird rarities in paintings, which in turn pushed the Dutch East India Company to find more unusual birds on their voyages.

What makes d'Hondecoeter so important as a bird artist is that his paintings from life excited and created demand for more true to life bird paintings, ones were scientifically accurate. It was the dawn of the Age of Enlightenment and his paintings fit right in. They were educational and have taught viewers about birds over the past four centuries. He inspired other artists and through his bird paintings, had an enormous influence on the development of the natural history aesthetic which was to come by artists and illustrated encyclopedias. Melchior d'Hondecoeter was painting birds with personalities interacting with each other that were also scientifically accurate a century before John James Audubon.

The mystery of how d'Hondecoeter came to see a Southern Cassowary from Australia in the 1600's in Europe has been solved. Looking back, we can be discouraged, on one hand that the illegal capture and trade of birds that gained popularity in the Age of Exploration still permeates to this day, or, on the other hand we can be thankful that artists like d'Hondecoeter inspired through their art the humanization of birds which in turn led to its impassioned protectors over time. History is a double edged sword, but I for one am grateful for these beautiful paintings that continue to inspire and introduce people of all walks of life to birds today.

Thanks for staying with me, that was a long one.

Cheers,
Stephanie

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