The comparatively chaste young woman in
E. de Jongh provides a comprehensive analysis of illustrated emblem books from the 17th century in conjunction with contemporary paintings featuring the birdcage. He underscores the amorous nature in which the bird and the cage appear. See “A Bird’s-Eye View of Erotica: Double Entendre in a Series of Seventeenth-Century Genre Scenes,” in Questions of Meaning: Theme and Motif in Dutch Seventeenth-Century Painting, trans. and ed. Michael Hoyle (Leiden, 2000), 43–46. In addition, numerous examples of this cage exist, often suspended from the ceiling of interiors in the center of the room, as in Gerrit Dou, Lady at Her Toilet, 1667, Museums Boijmans van Beuningen (cat. 4.1), and Gerrit Dou, Woman at the Clavichord, c. 1665, Dulwich Picture Gallery, London (cat. 7.3), in Adriaan Waiboer, Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., and Blaise Ducos, eds., Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting (New Haven, 2017).
A close examination of the bird’s feet reveal that one foot is obscured from view and the foot in the foreground features only two digits of the talon. Parrot feet are zygodactyl and therefore feature two digits in front and two in back. Digit four is the only one clearly in view. Terri Brittin, “Fossil Groups: Psittaciformes,” University of Bristol Palaeobiology Research Group, November 11, 2016, http://palaeo.gly.bris.ac.uk/Palaeofiles/Fossilgroups/psittaciformes/Characters.html.
More than Mimicry: The Parrot in Dutch Genre Painting
Beautiful, exotic, and rare, parrots are a mainstay of 17th-century Dutch genre paintings. Appearing prominently in domestic interiors, taverns, and markets, these rare birds are painterly evidence of the vast and profitable trade network established by the newly independent Dutch Republic. Among an impressive array of luxury goods imported to the Low Countries, parrots were highly coveted. A wealthy and erudite clientele was eager to indulge its cultural curiosity and purchase such conspicuous symbols of prosperity. Parrots, however, were more than ostentatious displays of wealth and sophistication. These very social and intelligent creatures were, in fact, highly valued companions. As such, they provided Dutch genre painters an unprecedented opportunity for creativity and candor, on which they skillfully capitalized. The resulting works reveal personalities at play and unique perspectives into the private lives of Dutch citizens in the Golden Age.
The parrot’s special status among the elite is evident in
Thomas Boehrer is one of a select group of art historians to address the parrot in the history of art, and he notes the significantly different role the parrot plays in Dutch genre painting. He observes that these birds “enter into a special relationship with their owners . . . placing them in a sense inside the family unit,” in Parrot Culture: Our 2,500-Year-Long Fascination with the World’s Most Talkative Bird (Philadelphia, 2004), 19.
This species has been extensively studied by Harvard cognitive behavioral scientist Irene Pepperberg. Her research reveals that the intelligence of the African grey rivals that of a five-year-old child and the most advanced animal primates. Her parrot, Alex, learned to count and add (understanding the numerical concept of zero), could identify shapes and colors, and held an extensive vocabulary. Dr. Pepperberg established that the size of the brain did not correspond to its ability to function. The term “bird brain” is, indeed, a misnomer, and the common belief that the grey’s speech is mere mimicry has been challenged by its cognitive abilities, which reveal contextual application of speech and the understanding of cause and effect. For a list of Dr. Pepperberg’s publications, see http://alexfoundation.org/about/dr-irene-pepperberg/.
Fig. 2 - Gerrit Dou, Woman with a Parrot (detail), c. 1660–1665, oil on panel, The Leiden Collection, New York, GD-105. © The Leiden Collection, New York
The comparatively chaste young woman in
Fig. 3 - Frans van Mieris, The Duet (detail), 1658, oil on panel, Staatliches Museum Schwerin/ Ludwigslust/ Güstrow. bpk | Staatliches Museum Schwerin | Elke Walford
The graceful, elongated profile of the beautiful woman in this work seems to mesmerize all the figures in the room, as she stands with one hand on the keyboard in front of her. With the other, she gently turns the page of the musical score. Plucking the chords of the theorbo-lute, her male accompanist inclines his head toward her with the hint of an amorous smile playing on his lips. The sensuous harmony in this scene is palpable, and the exotic parrot contributes significantly to this endeavor.
Fig. 4 - Frans van Mieris, Woman Feeding a Parrot (detail), 1663, oil on panel, The Leiden Collection, New York, FM-112. © The Leiden Collection, New York
Van Mieris’s keen powers of observation and artistic sensibility reach its epitome in Woman Feeding a Parrot
Van Mieris’s technique in painting this work has been eloquently described by Melanie Griffith. She states, “Van Mieris’ impenetrable, enamel-like surface must have required continuous paint layers in both the final paint and the underpainting below,” in “Fine Painting and Eloquent Imprecision: Gabriel Metsu’s Painting Technique,” in Gabriel Metsu, ed. Adriaan E. Waiboer (National Gallery of Art, Washington, 2010), 176–177 and figs. 138, 140. This enamel-like surface is entirely appropriate for the depiction of the African grey, due to the presence of the uropygial gland, “[which] is the most prominent epidermal gland in birds and produces a waxy oily secretion via two or more ducts. This oil is spread through the plumage during preening.” Neil A. Forbes, in Avian Medicine, ed. Jaime Samour, 3rd ed. (Saint Louis, 2016), http://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/veterinary-science-and-veterinary-medicine/uropygial-gland.
The resemblance of this model to Van Mieris’s wife has been noted in several works, most recently by Quentin Buvelot in his entry, “Young Woman Feeding a Parrot,” ed. Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. (New York, 2017), https://www.theleidencollection.com/archives/artwork/FM_112_frans_van_mieris_woman_feeding_a_parrot_2017.pdf?ch=6457980; and earlier by Otto Naumann in “Frans van Mieris as a Draughtsman,” Master Drawings 16, no. 1 (1978): 25, in no. 2. See also Quentin Buvelot, ed., Frans van Mieris 1635–1681 (National Gallery of Art, Washington, 2005), 163.
As astutely observed by Quentin Buvelot in Walter Liedtke and Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., eds., Johannes Vermeer: Il secolo d’oro dell’arte olandese (Scuderie del Quirinale, 2012), 170–171, no. 32.
Compositions featuring women at needlework with parrots have been widely interpreted. Wayne E. Franits emphasizes the domestic significance of such “demure maidens” in Paragons of Virtue: Women and Domesticity in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Art (Cambridge, UK, 1993), 205. E. de Jongh places significant emphasis on eroticism in his reading of the parrot as well as other birds in “A Bird’s-Eye View of Erotica: Double Entendre in a Series of Seventeenth-Century Genre Scenes,” in Questions of Meaning: Theme and Motif in Dutch Seventeenth-Century Painting, trans. and ed. Michael Hoyle (Leiden, 2000), 22–46.
Kristen H. Gonzalez
Nov 3, 2017