Staff Pick: A Brief History of Dead Birds in Western Art

Yellow Throated Warbler , Jonathan Wilde

Yellow Throated Warbler, Jonathan Wilde

Jonathan Wilde, an artist much beloved for his picturesque landscapes and naturalistic wildlife paintings, often elicits an entirely other reaction from viewers of his postmortem avian portraits. Individuals retort abjectly to these dead feathered friends, wondering why on earth would someone portray such a morbid subject, especially someone who holds such clear reverence for life and all creatures? And, why on earth would someone collect these macabre scenes?

Here, I aim to shed some light on this rather dark subject matter. Dead birds have a long and rich history in Western Art History, having been used as a subject matter by artists from Pablo Picasso to Albrecht Dürer. Our contemporary distaste for this type of imagery is however not innate; in fact, humans have historically admired and even revered such images.

detail from Willem Van Aelst’s  Hunting Still Life  of 1665

detail from Willem Van Aelst’s Hunting Still Life of 1665

Though precedented far earlier, The Golden Age of Dutch Painting (during the 17th century) saw perhaps the most iconic rise of dead birds in Art. Owing both to the massive economic success of the Dutch Empire and the split between Northern Europe and the Catholic Church, artists and patrons increasingly turned to secular subjects. The newly wealthy Dutch merchant class invested in works that represented subject matter grounded in their own reality, emphasizing the overwhelming opulence now available to them. New pigments imported from China allowed for true-to-life depictions of the vivid hues and iridescence found in nature and Dutch artists relished the ability to manifest a whole new realm of color and light. Ventures to the Middle East and East Asia renewed already piqued interest in Falconry, leading several Dutch cities to rely on the sport so heavily that their economies became entirely dependent on birds. Although our modern tastes no longer include consuming songbirds, the delicacy’s popularity once rivaled larger game such as ducks and grouse. Furthermore, the delicate morsels provided an ideal subject for still life painting, an art form once viewed as the basest of genres which the Dutch elevated to near iconic status. Much like the decadent, ripe fruit and extravagant, sumptuous floral arrangements, the hapless fowl were transformed into stunning examinations of color, light and texture, and emblems of the Dutch Aristocracy.

Flamingo,  from “Birds of America,” John James Audubon

Flamingo, from “Birds of America,” John James Audubon

Celebrated American ornithologist and naturalist, John James Audubon, is best known for his extensive publication “Birds of America” which detailed over 700 species, 25 of which had never been identified prior. Life sized and painted in exquisite detail, these birds too hold a morbid secret— every single bird Audubon painted, he killed. Though less obvious in smaller species, his depictions of larger animals are often posed in bizarre and unnatural contortions, confined by the size of his canvas, their bodies manipulated with strings, pins, and wires. Sometimes shooting more than 100 birds in a day, Audubon, however, did not delight in killing. Of the practice he lamented "The moment a bird was dead… no matter how beautiful it had been in life, the pleasure of possession became blunted for me." The creatures’ deaths was a mere necessity of scientific and artistic observation.

We owe much of our modern sensibilities and attitudes towards animals to the Victorians. Spearheaded by Queen Victoria, the formation of RSPCA (the Royal Society of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) and the passing of a number of animal welfare acts mid-century demonstrated a drastic shift in human and animal relations. Once deemed synonymous with inanimate objects, all creatures suddenly gained anthropomorphic characteristics and were worthy of sympathy and Victorians sought to limit their pain and suffering. It may seem strange that holiday greeting cards during this period bore the images of dead birds; however, their presence was founded in the same contemporary ideals. These little slain birds were symbols intended to elicit sympathy for the less fortunate, and were even thought to bring luck to their recipients. These cards also served as memento mori (reminders of the inevitability of death) for the death obsessed Victorians who still held fast to their Christian hope of life after death.

Winter Birds , Jonathan Wilde

Winter Birds, Jonathan Wilde

In light of these anecdotes, let’s re-examine another work by Wilde. Winter Birds depicts a Dark Eyed Junco flanked by two Chirpping Sparrows strung up by one foot in an uncanny resemblance to “the Hanged Man” figure of the Tarot deck. These creatures met their demise upon colliding with a windowpane but are immortalized by Wilde’s reverent representation, as he sought to pay homage to their fate. Winter Birds is an exquisite object study, the mundane browns and grays of the bird’s plumage are pored over, ever feather meticulously rendered with splendor and precise observation. What is perhaps most startling about these dead birds, is their stark reality and variable discomfort that comes from finding visual pleasure in death. Such works cause us to question the boundaries between human and animal and reveal an inherent empathy many of us feel toward these creatures.

-Lauren Miller, Gallery Associate