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Parrots and People in Dutch Genre Paintings: A Discussion with Dr. Irene Pepperberg on the Role of the African Grey Parrot in the 17th Century

Kristen Gonzalez, curatorial assistant, department of northern baroque paintings, National Gallery of Art; Irene Pepperberg, lecturer and research associate, department of psychology, Harvard University, senior lecturer, Brain and Cognitive Sciences, MIT, president, the Alex Foundation. The parrot was among many coveted imports to the northern Netherlands in the Golden Age, and its prominence in genre paintings of the period has generated interest not only among art historians, but also in the scientific community. In an interview on January 10, 2018, Kristen Gonzalez, curatorial assistant of northern baroque paintings, and Dr. Irene Pepperberg, Harvard scientist and renowned expert on animal cognition, discuss the lively interactions between parrots and people in Dutch paintings, some of which were examined during the landmark exhibition Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivalry. Pepperberg’s work with the African grey parrot has revolutionized ideas about animal communication and intelligence. Examining a number of Dutch genre paintings that depict parrots, Pepperberg and Gonzalez explore the role of these beloved family companions from a unique, multidisciplinary perspective. Their analysis considers a society that not only recognized the cognitive abilities of parents, but also documented these abilities in paintings of the highest caliber. Their paintings fetched large sums of money and provided an elite clientele exactly what they wanted—a reflection of their society’s sophistication and ideals. Pepperberg and Gonzalez consider the parrot and its place then and now, and reveal striking similarities in animal-human relationships throughout history.