The Art of Birds

Mallard Ducks, (Anas platyrhynchos) by Alexander Pope, 1878

Revered because of their colors, voices, and flying abilities, birds contribute to folklore, myths, and symbols. They have been the subjects of art works for at least 40,000 years when our ancestors carved or painted images of them.

Ancient Greek pottery displayed bird images on water jugs, bowls, and cups. The Hopi Indians  used figures of birds or feathers on their pottery, sand figures, and wooden tables. Birds were symbols of spiritual guidance. The finch represented a soul rising to heaven, the peacock everlasting life, the crow a symbol of wicked thoughts, the owl a symbol of wisdom, and the vulture greed and corruption.

Ravens were associated with myths, folktales, and artworks. Native Americans believed the raven bore magic and messages from the cosmos. The European Goldfinch was pictured in paintings of the Middle Ages representing the resurrection of Christ. The gold wing color, the red face and cheeks and the bird's penchant for thistle seeds became religious symbols.

Illustration may have begun with De Arte Venandi cum Avibus (On the Art of Hunting with Birds) written by Frederick II, c. 1245. Perhaps the first natural history book that illustrated birds was The Book of Nature or Buch der Natur, assembled by Konrad von Megenberg about 1480.

In the latter part of the 15th century, woodcuts became popular, more so after the advent of printing, the first a seven-volume work, L'histoire de la Nature des Oyseaux by Pierre Belon in 1555. 
The 16th century saw an increased number of menageries with exotic and rare birds kept by royalty and men of means. 

In 1657 John Johnstone published Historia Naturalis de Avibus Libri in Frankurt, the illustrations produced with copper plate engraving.

In the late 17th century, Francis Willughby and John Ray published Ornithologie,  a new classification of birds, by observation and description rather than accepted word..

During the Renaissance there were many paintings with realistic-appearing birds albeit unnaturally set. Melchior d’Hondecoeter’s The Menagerie shows several birds and two monkeys perched on an old wall. Frans Snyders’ Still Life With a Swan is typical of bird paintings of the era – a swan laid out with other game in preparation for a feast. Wild birds of many species graced the dinner table during this era.I Between 1729 and 1747 Mark Catesby, an English naturalist, published his Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands, the first published account of the flora and fauna of North America. It included 220 plates of birds and other animals as well as plants and was, perhaps, the beginning of realistic representations of birds in their natural environment.

The late 18th century saw a great interest in  avian classification schemes. French naturalists Georges-Louis Leclerc Comte de Buffon’s nine volume Historie Naturalle des Oiseaux and Mathurin-Jacques Brisson’s six volume Ornithologie were significant works. Buffon felt that groups like genus and species were only figments of the human mind and that animals ought to be classified by how useful they were to humans. Brisson’s treatise was much closer to Swedish physician, botanist, and zoologist Carl Linneaus’ scheme but never received much consideration. Linnaeus’s taxonomic system ultimately became universally accepted.

John James Audubon made bird paintings famous with his life-size prints of almost 500 bird species. Although realistic to a great degree, Audubon worked with dead specimens that he shot and mounted in a wire frame, not always in the most natural pose.

Proper classification continued to be a focus in ornithology in the 19th century, especially with exotic birds being brought to Europe and the U.S. from strange lands. Artists like Elizabeth Gould and John Selby were setting standards for what bird illustration should be. Comparing bird species could only be done if the artwork was scientifically accurate. Louis Agassiz Fuertes and Bruno Liljefors produced bird art that was not only visually appealing, but reflected scientific information.
As photographic and printing equipment and techniques improved, so did the art, both for scientific illustration and public consumption A milestone in bird painting was laid with Roger Tory Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds, published in 1934. He set a style of accurate representations of birds and a format for field guides that still holds today.

In more recent years some enormously talented bird artists have produced bird art that shows incredible detailing of feathers, scales, and eye color. David Alan Sibley is the Roger Tory Peterson of today. Elizabeth Butterworth paints and draws whole birds and their parts in minute, photographic quality detail. 

Along with different styles of bird art came changes in the field of ornithology. Preserving birds and placing them in lifelike positions were a boon to artists and naturalists. Microscopes allowed the close examination of feathers, beaks, and bones. Looking glasses – binoculars – were invented and improved – so birds could be studied in the wild. Advances in taxonomy allowed accurate naming, and the relationship of species to be clarified. Aristotle recognized about 123 species of birds; today we know of 11,000 or so across the world and we know how they are built and function.

See biographies of artists through recent centuries under The Art of Birds menu above.

Frans Snyders’ Still Life With a Swan