Birds: Ornithology and the Great Bird Artists

My latest book

My latest book, my ninth, just hit the bookshelves. Published by the University of Chicago press and Entitled Birds: Ornithology and the Great Bird Artists, it is about how the changes in ornithology affected art and what influence art had on ornithology from the 16th century to the present. Pretty much a coffee-table book full of spectacular artwork, it also has some fascinating information about the intersection of bird science and art.

In the 16th century when ornithology was in its infancy, only about 500 species of birds were recognized. The focus of paintings in Europe was landscapes and portraiture, not birds or other animals. Animal artists, called animaliers, were sometimes called upon to add animals to paintings to add a bit of interest, but only later did birds feature prominently in paintings. There were few laws protecting birds so they were killed for food and sport in great numbers. The paintings of birds were mostly kitchen or market scenes with dozens of birds hung from the rafters or splayed about on tables, dead. Often swans were the center of the picture as they are big and white, making a nice centerpiece for the painting.

As explorers traveled the world and brought back exotic plants and animals, birds became more prominent in paintings either as the main subject or an embellishment. Parrots were especially common, partly because they are colorful and probably because they were one of the few groups of birds that could withstand a lengthy sea voyage from Africa or South America to Europe. Common were many portraits of women with parrots, perhaps because both were considered attractive and fragile.

In those early centuries, there were no museums, but private collectors amassed enormous numbers of natural history specimens and displayed them in what were called cabinets but were actually large rooms with many shelves and compartments. Other well-to-do individuals collected live animals and maintained a pseudo-zoo on their property. Artists took advantage of these cabinets and zoos to get up close and personal views of birds.

Little was known, and little curiosity was shown, about the natural history of birds in the 16th and 17th centuries, so birds that were in nature nowhere near each other were portrayed in the same painting. It wasn’t unusual for a guinea fowl from Africa to be painted perched next to a South American toucan. And there were a lot of mistakes. Some African natives earning money by collecting bird specimens, killed the birds and removed their feet or legs (for easier handling, I guess), so when the birds were described in Europe they were considered legless.

Slowly descriptions of birds were organized into some sort of logical order, even though mythical creatures like the Phoenix crept in. One of the most well-known early attempts at classifying birds was by Willoughby and Ray in the Ornithology of Francis Willoughby. A Recent book, the Wonderful Mr. Willoughby by Tim Birkhead, and English ornithologist, is an interesting read. Of course, there were numerous mistakes and omissions as well as inaccurate pictures, but this was before binoculars and taxidermy so there was much more to be known.

I’ll post more on my book next time. (It’s on Amazon and in your favorite bookstore.)

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