Category

colonialism

Parrots in Art

Albrecht Dürer, detail of parrot from "Adam and Eve," 1504. Engraving

Albrecht Dürer, detail of parrot from “Adam and Eve,” 1504. Engraving

Last week, while driving to work, I was thinking about Dürer’s engraving Adam and Eve, which includes a parrot in the upper left quadrant of the print. In this particular context, the parrot functions as a symbol for the Virgin Mary. The symbolic association might seem like a stretch today, but the belief was that the parrot was similar to Mary. Both the parrot and the Virgin were associated with typically-improbable situations: if a parrot can be taught to speak, then a virgin can become pregnant and give birth! Additionally, there are connections between parrots and Mary’s purity and virginity, which are explained in more detail elsewhere. Here are a couple of my favorite representations of the Virgin with parrots:

Martin Schongauer, "Madonna and Child with the Parrot," 1470-75. Engraving, 159 x 101 mm

Martin Schongauer, “Madonna and Child with the Parrot,” 1470-75.
Engraving, 159 x 101 mm

Jan Van Eyck, detail of parrot from "Madonna with the Canon van der Paele," 1436. Oil on wood, 122 x 157 cm

Jan Van Eyck, detail of parrot from “Madonna with the Canon van der Paele,” 1436. Oil on wood, 122 x 157 cm

I think that the association with the Virgin and parrots is one reason why there are so many paintings of women and parrots in comparatively recent centuries. Parrots typically don’t appear with men in art (perhaps because pirates didn’t commission their own portraits? Ha ha!). However, I do know of one example of a man depicted with parrots:

Max Slevogt, "Man with Parrots," 1901. Oil on canvas, 82 x 66 cm.

Max Slevogt, “Man with Parrots,” 1901. Oil on canvas, 82 x 66 cm.

Typically, though, in art parrots are usually depicted with women, or appear in a still-life painting, or in some type of naturalist or scientific drawing. Why is this? The scientific examples are easily explained, since parrots are non-European and therefore served as an example worthy of study. In addition, parrots could be studied by artists in relation to their anatomy and color. Such was the case with Van Gogh, who studied the anatomy of a stuffed parrot when he created The Green Parrot:

Vincent Van Gogh, "The-Green Parrot," 1886.

Vincent Van Gogh, “The-Green Parrot,” 1886.

Here is one example of a parrot in a still-life painting, although there are several others by this same artist Georg Flegel (see Still Life with Pygmy Parrot and Dessert Still Life):

Georg Flegel (1566-1638), Still-life with Parrot, n.d.

Georg Flegel (1566-1638), Still-life with Parrot, n.d.

I think that the inclusion of parrots with still-life paintings is interesting, because it connect parrots to the material world, wealth, and trade. As an exotic creature from non-European lands, parrots were highly prized during the colonial period. And it wasn’t just the live birds that were valued: in the colonial era the plucked feathers of parrots were valued too. In Mexico, the indigenous practice of feather painting was combined with European pictorial conventions (see below). This type of feather painting was highly prized by the Europeans, which adds to how parrots were connected with material value.

Jaun Bautista Cuiris, "Portrait of Christ Made of Humming Bird and Parrot Feathers," 1550-80.

Jaun Bautista Cuiris, “Portrait of Christ Made of Humming Bird and Parrot Feathers,” 1550-80.

Beyond these examples, there are lots of representations of women with parrots. In this context, I think there is more symbolic and visual meaning at play than a mere historical connection to traditional representations of the Virgin. For example, as late as the 17th century, a connection between women and caged birds was made in moralizing paintings suggesting seduction (such as Couple with Parrot (1668) by Pieter de Hooch.) Also, the brightly-colored and and textural plumage of parrots are very decorative, and this is a key thing to remember in relation to representations of women. As a result, parrots complement decorative elements within a work of art, and give an added sense to materiality to such paintings which are dedicated to showing pretty objects. The inclusion of the parrot hints that the other objects in the painting (whether a female figure or fancy tableware in a still life, for example), are especially meant-to-be-looked-at by the viewer.

The depiction of a parrot with a woman hints that the woman is also decorative, like the parrot, and perhaps is even exotic. I think that there might even be a correlation with the softness of the bird’s plumage and the implied softness of the female skin, especially with nude/semi-nude paintings like Delacroix’s Woman with a Parrot and Tiepolo’s Woman with a Parrot. Even the more muted of paintings that completely cover the female body still hint at an element of decoration and texture, especially with the silky intimate dressing gown that is worn by Manet’s model in this painting:1

Édouard Manet, "Young Lady in 1866," 1866.

Édouard Manet, “Young Lady in 1866,” 1866

It seems to me that the usage of parrots in art took a vast turn from their symbolic connection to Mary (stressing the miraculous nature of the virgin birth!) to the tangible, decorative, and perhaps even frivolous associations with parrots in later art. What do you think? Do you know of any other genres or scenarios in which parrots appear in art?

1 Recent scholars have interpreted Manet’s painting as an allegory for the five senses. In this context, the parrot (as a confidant) may represent hearing. For more information see: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/89.21.3/

 

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The Passionflower in Latin American Art

A passionflower

A passionflower

Earlier this week I noticed, by sheer happenstance, that there are passionflowers growing next to the parking garage of my local library! I was thrilled at this discovery: I’ve never seen a passionflower in person before, but every year I teach my students about them. The passionflower was very familiar to many indigenous people located within Spanish and Portuguese territories during the colonial era, and Jesuit missionaries therefore decided to use this flower as a symbolic tool to teach indigenous people about the Passion of Christ:

  • The ten petals reference the ten apostles, excluding Judas (who betrayed Christ) and Peter (who denied Christ)
  • The pointed tips of the leaves were said to represent the Holy Lance, which pierced Christ’s side
  • The spiral tendrils of the flower (not shown in photo above, but can be seen HERE) were compared to the lash of Christ’s scourging
  • The radial filiments (shown above in violet) were seen as a representation of the crown of thorns
  • Three stigmas (in center of flower) represent three nails. Five anthers (underneath stigmas, in green) represent the five wounds that Christ received. (He received four imprints from the nails and one from the lance.)1

These flowers are very distinctive in appearance, and it makes sense to me that the Jesuits would incorporate this imagery into their artwork as well, so that the symbol could be used for didactic purposes within a more formal setting. So, for the past few years I have been on a quest to compile representations of passionflowers in Jesuit art and architectural decoration, primarily from the seven reductions (missions) located in Brazil and Paraguay. This has been difficult to do, due to the comparatively few extant examples of art from the missions in general, as well as the condition of such surviving objects. An entry on Wikipedia claims that the “flor de maracujá” (passionflower) was one of the most well-known decorative motifs in the missions, but I have yet to find a primary source or clear examples of digital examples online to support this claim (although I would like to think it is correct!). Here are some examples, however, that I think may be representations of passionflowers from Jesuit churches and/or missions:

  • Detail above a pilaster at Jesús de Tavarangüé (now in Itapua, Paraguay)
  • “Large stone flowers” (“grandees flores de pedra”) are described as having decorated the pilasters found within the living quarters on the reduction for the indigenous people
  • Perhaps passionflowers are located on the retable from São Lourenço in Niterói, but I’d like to see higher resolution images of the flowers to make sure.
Detail of doorway at San Ignacio Mini, Argentina, 1727

Detail of doorway at San Ignacio Mini, Argentina, 1727

Gauvin Bailey discusses the carving of a passionflower on the Jesuit reduction church of San Iganacio Mini in Argentina. He doesn’t specify where this passionflower is located or its appearance in this particular source, but I wonder if he may be referring to the stylized flowers in the lower corners of the carved doorway panel shown above (the blossoms bell out from the tails of the fantastic winged figures).

Apart from the Jesuits, passionflowers also captured the attention of other artists. Often the passionflower is used in a religious (and perhaps sometimes moralizing) context, but it also appears in secular contexts as well. Here are some other representations of the passionflower in Latin American art:

Detail of fresco mural from monastery of San Salvador at Malinalco, Mexico, 16th-18th century

Detail of fresco mural, lower cloister wall from monastery of San Salvador at Malinalco, Mexico, 16th-18th century

Scholar Jeanette Favrot Peterson believes that the flower represented above is a stylized version of the passionflower from a fresco mural wall in the Augustinian monastery of San Salvador at Malinalco, Mexico.2

Detail of doorway at San Ignacio Mini, Argentina, 1727

 

Our Lady of Mercy with Saints of the Order, 18th century. Archivo Museo de la Merced, Santiago

Our Lady of Mercy with Saints of the Order, 18th century. Archivo Museo de la Merced, Santiago

In a fascinating argument, Camila Mardones Bravo argues that this representation of Our Lady of Mercy (Virgen de la Merced) is depicted as emerging from a hybrid flower that contains characteristics of two separate flowers: the rose and the passionflower.

Albert Eckhout, detail from "Still Life with Watermelons, Pineapple and Other Fruit," 1640

Albert Eckhout, detail from “Still Life with Watermelons, Pineapple and Other Fruit,” 1640

The Dutch painter Albert Eckhout depicted the passionflower a few times in the paintings he created during his time in Brazil, including the one above from Still Life with Watermelons, Pineapple and Other Fruit (detail shown above). In this context, it appears that he is just scientifically presenting the passionflower as an example of the flora of Brazil. Eckhout is also thought by some to be responsible for similarly-scientific representations of Brazilian life, and he may have even been responsible for the depiction of the passionflower in Willem Piso and Georg Marcgraf’s Natural History of Brazil (see below):3

Albert Eckhout (?), ‘Passion fruit’ in "Historia naturalis Brasiliae…," by Willem Piso and Georg Margraf, 1648

Albert Eckhout (?), ‘Passion fruit’ in “Historia naturalis Brasiliae…,” by Willem Piso and Georg Margraf, 1648

In other visual contexts though, apart from these scientific representations, I think that Eckhout may have been including the passionflower as an allusion to sin and suffering. The passionflower also appears in his ethnographic portraits of a Tapuya and mameluke woman, with the flower prominently appearing in the basket held by the mameluke and on the tree to the left of the Tapuya woman.

I think that the inclusion of the passionflower in these two contexts needs more consideration, and possibly more research. On one hand, Eckhout may be recognizing the importance of the passionflower (and more specifically, the passionfruit) within indigenous cultures for medicinal and sedative properties, as well as food. Eckhout also may be celebrating and highlighting the local flora within these works of art. However, I also wonder if there may be some sort of moralizing message in connection with these flowers, since there are symbolic ways in which these women are cast in a negative light (as uncivilized and/or savage, for example).4  Of course, there are overwhelmingly positive connotations with the passionflower itself (in its connection to Christ), so I wonder if these flowers also could have served as symbol of the civilizing influence of the (Christian) Dutch on these indigenous groups.5

On a side note, I wanted to mention that the passionflower continued to be important in Brazilian culture after the colonial era. In 1938 the poet Alfonso de Guimaraens, a Mineiro, wrote the poem “A Passiflora” which compares a devout person’s soul to a passionflower.

Are you familiar with any representations of the passionflower in Latin American art? If you know of any more, please share! This post is really more of a “post-it” than a post; I feel like there is much more research that can be done on this topic!

1 The symbolic connections between the passionflower and the Passion of Christ are discussed by several authors from the colonial Baroque period, including Juan Eusibio Nieremberg. See Evonne Levy and Kenneth Mills, eds., Lexikon of the Hispanic Baroque: Transatlantic Exchange and Tranformation (Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 2014), p. 299. Available online HERE.

2 Jeanette Favrot Peterson, The Paradise Garden Murals of Malinalco: Utopia and Empire of Sixteenth-Century Mexico (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2014), 87-89. Available online HERE.

3 Amy Buono,  “Interpretative Ingredients: Formulating Art and Natural History in Early Modern Brazil,” in Journal of Art Historiography 11 (December 2014): 1.

4Rebecca Parker Brienen, Visions of Savage Paradise: Albert Eckhout, Dutch Painter in Colonial Brazil (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2006), 120-127, 162-168.

5 About fifteen years after Eckhout painted these works of art, Antonio de León Pinelo wrote a book El paraíso en el Nuevo Mundo (1656) in which he claimed the passionfruit must have been the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. He writes, “For what greater proof that this was the fruit of sin, and that caused the punishment, which found in His flower the most precious signs of forgiveness?”) “¿Pues qué mayor prueba de que esta fruta fue la del pecado, y la que ocasionó el castigo, que hallarse en su Flor las más presisas señales del perdón?” (citation found HERE). I wonder if there were other connotations that carried over to Europe before Pinelo’s writing, and perhaps if any other symbolic associations with this flower (both associated with sin and forgiveness) could be applied to Eckhout’s work.

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CAA Recap: Mary Magdalene and Cotán

For those of you who follow me on Twitter, you may have noticed my burst of activity when I began to live-tweet while attending sessions at CAA (and that THATCamp session which preceded the conference). There are a lot of things that I learned and explored during the conference, and I particularly liked contributing to the Art History Flashbook that was created during one THATCamp session. Another highlight of the conference was getting to meet several art history bloggers for lunch. It was fun to meet Ben, Frank, and Sedef in person.

My notes from each conference session are very extensive, and I don’t think I want to hash them out in this forum right now. But I do want to highlight a few of the talks which really stood out to me. These talks were particularly interesting, especially because of the course which I am teaching on Counter-Reformation art. In fact, I discussed several ideas from the conference with my students this afternoon.

Titian, "Penitent Magdalene" (c. 1533, left) and "Penitent Magdalene" (c. 1565, right)

I really enjoyed Charlene Villaseñor Black’s talk, “Sacred Tranformations, Indigenous Influences: Mary Magdalene and Other Case Studies in Colonial Art.” Black discussed the treatment of Mary Magdalene in relation to the Counter-Reformation, and brought in some European examples (such as the two depictions of the Penitent Magdalene by Titian shown above, which evidence how Titian moved away from the problematic exposed-breast iconography after the Council of Trent stipulated conditions for religious art in 1563).

Black discussed how colonial artists did not quickly respond to the censorship of the Council of Trent and argued that Juan Correa’s Mary Magdalene (c. 1680) is similarly erotic, even though the figure is clothed. She mentions how the reclining posture of the Magdalene can reference the her previous life as a prostitute. Additionally, images of the Magdalene outdoors (in the wilderness) can even recall her past as a prostitute, since outdoor scenes have associations with Venus and love-making. Overall, Black wonders if indigenous attitudes toward sexuality and prostitution may have affected the way that the Magdalene was represented in Spanish America.

My view of Penny Howell Jolly's talk from the hall. I took this picture so that I could remember paintings by Master of the Female Half-Lengths, Quentin Massys, and Jan Gossaert.

Speaking of the Magdalene, I also really enjoyed a talk by Penny Howell Jolly, “Experiencing the Magdalene: Seeing, Smelling, and Hearing Salvation in Northern Devotional Art.” This session was extremely full, and I only got to hear this presentation from the hallway. I remember that she spoke about sexual associations with the lute in Northern art. She discussed that when the Magdalene is depicted with a lute, this could suggest that she is love-sick for her symbolic lover, Christ himself. She also discussed how the jar (part of the Magdalene’s iconography) can have associations with perfume and the perfumed luxury offered by the Magdalene as a prostitute.

Cotán, "Still Life with Quince, Cabbage, Melon, and Cucumber," 1602

I also enjoyed Martina Phleger Hesser’s talk, “Juan Sánchez Cotán’s San Diego Still Life Painting as Vehicle for Gender Transformation.” Hesser discussed how Cotán painted this still life perhaps right before he entered a Carthusian monastery. She discussed the many sexual associations with the fruits and vegetables in this painting, including how the cabbage plays a role in sexual gratification since layers are peeled away and removed (just like clothing). As a result, the upward, parabolic composition could indicate the sexual struggles that a monk must overcome in order to elevate to a higher, more divine realm.

Hesser also discusses how monks have to create a new gender for themselves that is neither male nor female, since they enter a monastic community and leave sexual desires behind. Additionally, members of a monastic community enter a mystical marriage with God, which therefore sets them apart from both men and women in the outside world. I thought that this idea of gender was particularly interesting, especially since the Carthusian monastery to which Cotán belonged practiced vegetarianism. Since these monks have given up the arguably “masculine” practice of meat consumption, I think the vegetarianism could be another manifestation of how these men have created a new gender identity for themselves. Cotán’s still life paintings are evidence of this vegetarian practice (and gender identity) in many respects, although I have noticed that game fowl is depicted in some of his still lifes (see Still Life with Game Fowl, Vegetables and Fruits (c. 1602)). It is an interesting angle to consider, though, and I’d like to explore this topic further in the future.

Did you attend CAA? What conference talks stood out to you?

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Technology and Triumphal Arch Parallels: Dürer and Debombourg

Baptiste Debombourg, Triumphal Arch, 2001. Cardboard boxes, glue, strings, scotch tape. Height 5.3 m (approx 17.38 feet)

This morning one of my students shared with me a Tumblr page with images of Debombourg’s Triumphal Arch, which is largely comprised of cardboard boxes. My student commented that this disposable monument reminded him of the temporary triumphal arches that we discussed in our class on colonial Brazilian art.1 I am curious as to whether Debombourg recycled used boxes for his construction. If he did, I think this would be an interesting contrast between our environmentally-conscious society and the colonial conquerors who initially perceived Latin America to be a land of abundant, limitless resources.

Anyhow, by coincidence, later this morning I came across another triumphal arch in the new art history textbook that I am reading (edited by Kim W. Woods). The text discusses the monumental arch that Dürer created for Emperor Maximilian (see below). This huge arch was printed on paper using 192 woodblocks, and was intended to be a wall decoration, kind of like a substitute for a tapestry or wall painting.

Albrecht Dürer, "Arch of Emperor Maximilian," 1515-17, colored woodcut. 357 x 295 cm (approx. 11.7' x 9.67')

Although these two arches are very different for a lot of reasons, I can’t help but think about how these arches have some interesting similarities. The both are created on a monumental scale. They both are “constructed” works of art, either with physical boxes or with the woodblocks which comprised Dürer’s final print. Even the small print on some Debombourg’s boxes has an interesting parallel with Dürer’s print: the latter has complicated Latin inscriptions which would have been hard to read, not to mention the complex compositions which would have been equally difficult to view.2

Curiously, both works of art have an interesting element of “reproducibility.” Dürer’s arch was originally printed in 700 sets, and later was reissued in more than 300 sets by one Archduke Ferdinand, one of Maximilian’s grandson.3 Ferdinand’s son Charles, in turn, also reissued sets of the arch. Dürer was able to reproduce his work through the relatively-new technological invention of the printing press. Likewise, Debombourg’s arch has been similarly “reproduced” over and over through blogs, tweets, and Tumblr “likes” (for starters, just look at the list on the Tumblr site that I included above).

It is interesting to think about how the Internet has assumed a “reproducibility function” for art, a function which for a long time was partially the responsibility of the printing press. Artists no longer become famous through distributing physical copies (i.e. prints) of their art. Instead, artists and viewers can place images on the Internet, and let those images (or the links to those images) reproduce themselves. Lately, when I have visited a museum gallery, I have been struck by how many people (including myself) are taking images of art with their cellphone cameras. It is phenomenal to consider how many works of art are “reproduced” via digital images each day.

Considering the widespread fame which Dürer achieved in his lifetime with physical copies of his prints, one can only imagine what mind-boggling fame he might have achieved if he lived in the Internet age. And I would bet that Dürer would have relished every moment of it.

1 Although we don’t have examples of temporary triumphal arches from Brazil, there are some descriptions that exist in documents. We can learn a little about how temporary triumphal arches appeared in Latin America by looking at a Spanish American painting of a viceroy “entrada.” Look on the far right side of Melchor Pérez Holguín’s, “The Entrance of the Viceroy Morcillo into Potosí,” 1716.

2 Kim W. Woods, ed., “Art and Visual Culture, 1100-1600: Medieval and Renaissance,” (London: Tate Publishing), 181-82.

3 Ibid., 181.

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The Turkey in Art

Happy Thanksgiving! This morning I’ve been wondering a little about the history of the turkey bird and its representation in art. I’ve learned a couple of interesting things, particularly from the book More than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual and Reality by Karen Davis. This book not only discusses the history of the turkey in connection with the Thanksgiving holiday, but also a broader history (and consumption) of the bird. The turkey was first shipped to Europe from Mexico in the early 16th century. The turkey was then bred in Europe (Davis specifically mentions Renaissance England) and eventually the domesticated bird was brought back over to the Americas.1

I think it’s pretty safe to say, then, that the turkey was viewed by Europeans as an “exotic” bird, at least initially. As I’ve been looking at some representations of turkeys this morning (all by European artists), I can’t help but wonder which of this artists might have viewed the turkey in an “exoticized” light, and which (later) artists may have seen the turkey as an integrated part of European life.

Here are some of my favorite turkeys in art:

Giambologna, "Turkey," 1560s. Image courtesy of Squinchpix.com

Johann Joachim Kändler, Turkey model, c. 1733. Getty Museum. This turkey was one of eight models which were made by the Meissen manufactory. Kändler, a sculptor, was hired to help with the royal commission for large porcelain animals.

Pieter Claesz, "Still Life with Turkey-Pie," 1627

Metsu, "The Poultry Seller," 1662

Michiel van der Voort the Elder, detail of pulpit, 1713, Cathedral of Our Lady (O.-L. Vrouwekathedraal), Antwerp

The turkey depicted on this pulpit is found on the left side of the image, halfway up the staircase. Its distinct tail feathers are especially noticeable. In addition to the turkey, this pulpit shows a variety of other birds, including a parrot, heron, owl, and peacock. These birds are included to emphasize the natural world, which was thought by Saint Bernard to be a source of inspiration for the faithful. (I bet this is the only instance in which the turkey bird serves as a point of spiritual inspiration!) I’d love to research more about this pulpit (if anyone has any sources to recommend, please leave a comment!). So far I have only found a few sources online: the Web Gallery of Art and this online forum. You can see another detail image of the pulpit here.

Goya, "Plucked Turkey," 1812

Do you have any favorite depictions of turkeys? Happy Thanksgiving!

1 Karen Davis, “More than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual and Reality” (Brooklyn, New York: Lantern Books, 2001), p. 54. Citation available online here. Davis’ book also goes into some depth discussing the difference between the wild turkey and domesticated turkey (see, for example, p. 79). She also mentions that the turkey was not a widespread part of Thanksgiving meals (outside of New England) until after 1800 (see p. 53).

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.