Rare and Wondrous: Birds in Art and Culture, 1620–1820

Rare and Wondrous: Birds in Art and Culture, 1620–1820 examines exotic birds as a nexus for the interrelationships among natural history, trade and colonialism, and visual art in Europe during the periods of the Age of European Exploration and the Enlightenment.

By The Toledo Museum of Art

Paula Reich

The Garden of Eden (1655/1661) by Izaac Van OostenThe Toledo Museum of Art

Birds from foreign lands had been known and valued in Europe since ancient times. But by the 17th and 18th centuries, an expansion of exploration, colonialism, and trade, including the Atlantic slave trade, fostered intense interest in the study of birds.

Thousands of specimens were brought back from around the world (frequently with the unacknowledged assistance and expertise of local, often Indigenous, populations and enslaved people).

Monarchs and wealthy professionals collected live birds in aviaries and displayed preserved specimens in cabinets of curiosities; middle-class families kept them as pets; and fashionable women wore their feathers as accessories. 

Artists sketched and painted them, recording and contributing to their cultural impact. Rare and Wondrous explores this love of exotic birds and the often complicated histories and consequences of their encounters with European culture.

The Ducie Cup (1584) by EnglandThe Toledo Museum of Art

Though they had made their way to Northern Europe since at least the 13th century, ostrich eggs were increasingly in demand as European trade with Africa (in goods as well as enslaved humans) increased in the 1500s. 

Aristocrats and wealthy merchants desired them for their cabinets of curiosities—collections of objects meant to represent a “theater of the universe.” When the remarkable eggs were transformed by the skill of the goldsmith into fanciful goblets, they became doubly prized.

Great Auk, from Museum Wormianum (Worm’s Museum) (1655) by Ole Worm (Danish, 1588–1654)Original Source: University of Michigan Library Special Collections Research Center

Ole Worm, physician to Christian IV of Denmark, kept a pet Great Auk as part of his renowned Copenhagen cabinet of wonders. The population of this now extinct flightless seabird declined greatly by the 1700s after they and their eggs were exploited as food for European sailors

and as curiosities for natural history collections. The last surviving pair was killed in 1844. The engraving in this book documenting Worm’s collection is the only known likeness of a Great Auk taken from a live bird.

Plate LXVIII (Bird Nests), From Cabinet of Natural Curiosities of Albertus Seba (1734/1735) by Albertus SebaOriginal Source: University of Michigan Library Museums Library

In 1734, Amsterdam apothecary Albertus Seba began to publish a four-volume, illustrated catalogue of the contents of his famous cabinet of natural wonders. 

A shareholder in the Dutch East India Trading Company, he worked with sailing crews to procure exotic plants and animals for medical applications (knowledge usually provided by local, often Indigenous, populations).

Intrigued by what he was receiving, Seba eventually expanded his collecting scope, establishing a network of contacts as far-flung as Greenland, Sri Lanka, and Virginia with whom he could acquire specimens or share knowledge. 

Seba’s resulting vast collection included specimens of birds, but also their nests, including hanging constructions like the weaver bird nest at the center of this hand-colored engraving.

Plate XX (Blue-and-Yellow Macaw) from Ornithologie (Ornithology), Volume 4 (1760) by Mathurin-Jacques BrissonThe Toledo Museum of Art

Mathurin-Jacques Brisson’s landmark six-volume study of birds, Ornithologywas the most complete, systematic ornithological study at the time it was published in 1760.

Brisson was the caretaker in Paris to the largest collection of natural history specimens in Europe at the time, a large proportion of which was preserved skins of birds from around the world.

Ornithology included descriptions of 1,136 birds, 320 of which had never been represented in an ornithological study before. François-Nicolas Martinet, engraver to King Louis XV, produced the 261 plates illustrating 500 birds.

The Blue-and-Yellow Macaw is native to the northern half of South America. The first macaws were brought to Europe not long after Columbus invaded the Americas. They became popular birds for menageries and natural history collections, and later, as pets for the wealthy.

Europeans were unable to successfully breed them until the 19th century, so their continued presence on the continent before then relied on frequent trade with the colonies in Brazil, Guyana, and Suriname, fueled by slave labor.

Plate XLVI (Spot-billed Pelican)from Ornithologie (Ornithology), Volume 6 (1760) by Marthurin-Jacques Brisson, Author French, 1723-1806The Toledo Museum of Art

Brisson’s Ornithology was not issued with hand-colored plates. The original owner of Toledo’s volumes either commissioned a colorist, or perhaps painted the plates themselves—a popular household pastime in the 18th century. 

The colorist likely had not seen many of the birds depicted or chose to make their own aesthetic choices, since many of the colors do not match the birds’ actual plumage, as with this Spot-billed Pelican.

Plate VII (Paradise Whydah), from Natural History of Birds, vol. 7 (1779) by Georges-Louis Leclerc, le comte de Buffon, author; Jacques de Sève, artistOriginal Source: Center for Archival Collections, Bowling Green State University

The comte de Buffon was curator of Louis XV’s natural history collection, on which he based his 44-volume Natural History, one of the most important works on natural history in the 18th century. 

The king’s cabinet included specimens of more than 800 preserved species of birds, many of them from the far-flung colonies and trading partners of France. The pair of Paradise Wydahs depicted here are native to Sub-Saharan Africa. Live wydahs were sold as cage birds in Europe.

Young Lady with a Bird and a Dog (1767) by John Singleton CopleyThe Toledo Museum of Art

Among the trappings of Colonial Boston prosperity John Singleton Copley included in his portrait of a well-heeled little girl is a domesticated Red-headed Lovebird, a small parrot species. 

Keeping birds as pets—usually local songbirds—was long established in both Europe and the American colonies. But as more European traders brought foreign birds home, exotic species became increasingly common features of wealthy and even middle-class homes.

The particular species shown in this painting points more specifically to the source of much of Boston's wealth: chattel slavery. 

The Red-headed Lovebird is largely native to central and western Africa and made its way to the Americas on ships transporting enslaved Africans. Copley himself is known to have enslaved at least three people.

Plate 294 (Dodo and Guinea Pig), from A Natural History of Uncommon Birds (1758/1764) by George EdwardsOriginal Source: University of Michigan Library Special Collections Research Center

Perhaps the most famous of all extinct birds, the flightless Dodo lived on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. At the time that naturalist George Edwards included it in his study of birds, the Dodo had already been extinct for a century.

When Dutch sailors arrived on Mauritius in the 16th century, they found them easy to kill, while the pigs and rats they brought on their ships fed on the Dodo’s eggs. 

The first written record of the Dodo was made in 1599 and the last credible sighting was in the 1660s, a swift and tragic consequence of expanded European exploration and colonization.

A Sandgrouse (1820) by India, Company School, probably LucknowThe Toledo Museum of Art

Interest in the study and depiction of birds of the world was not, of course, exclusive to European cultures. The 17th-century Indian artist Ustad Mansur, for example, made the earliest known color depiction of the famous Dodo.

This watercolor of a male Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse was painted by an unknown Indian artist likely from Lucknow—the diminutive landscape is a stylistic feature of artists working in that city .

It was probably painted for an officer of the commercial trading and colonial enterprise the British East India Company. Company employees commissioned local artists to depict Indian birds and animals.

Cooler for Wine Glasses (Prince de Rohan Service) (1771/1772) by Manufacture nationale de SèvresThe Toledo Museum of Art

The Sèvres Porcelain Manufactory employed painters who specialized in bird imagery. They often used as sources the illustrated bird books that proliferated during the second half of the 18th century.

Including those by British ornithologist George Edwards (see his illustration of a Dodo in this exhibition).

Many of the birds are depicted with colors that are more decorative than accurate, including the pastel-hued dove and parrot on this monteith, a vessel that was filled with ice or cold water to keep wine glasses cool.

The Preposterous Head Dress, or the Feathered Lady (1776) by Matthew Darly, designer and etcher, BritishOriginal Source: Yale Center for British Art

The Preposterous Head Dress pokes fun at the fashion of the day for flamboyantly tall hairstyles embellished with ribbons, waxed fruit, decorative objects, and especially long plumes from the wing of an ostrich. 

Matthew Darly’s satirical print shows an amusingly exaggerated version of the elite hairstyle, interwoven with vegetables and so tall that the hairdresser must stand on a footstool to apply a plethora of plumes.

The humorous image hides a darker story, however. Ostrich plumes became so in demand from fashionable socialites that the North African subspecies of the bird was hunted nearly to extinction. 

Eventually, in the 19th century, farming of ostriches in South Africa helped to meet the demand for ornamental feathers without killing the birds.

Music Box with Mechanical Bird (1845/1865) by Charles-Abraham Bruguier seniorThe Toledo Museum of Art

Although it was made in the mid-19th century, this decorative box with a mechanical singing bird is a form perfected by Swiss watchmakers in the 1700s. It utilized ingenious design, intricate machinery, and bellows to create a dazzling combination of art,  music, and technology.

Music Box with Mechanical Bird (1845/1865) by Charles-Abraham Bruguier seniorThe Toledo Museum of Art

When the box is wound, the oval plaque on top pops open and a miniature bird emerges, whirling around as it flaps its wings, turns its head, and clacks its beak while singing a trilling song.

Music Box with Mechanical Bird (1845/1865) by Charles-Abraham Bruguier seniorThe Toledo Museum of Art

The birdsong is based on that of Canaries, the most popular cage bird at the time, originally brought to Europe from the Canary Islands. The metal bird is covered in real feathers from South American hummingbirds. 

Music Box with Mechanical Bird (1845/1865) by Charles-Abraham Bruguier seniorThe Toledo Museum of Art

Credits: Story

We are grateful to the institutions whose loans made the exhibition possible. The Center for Archival Collections, Bowling Green State University; the University of Michigan library Museums Library; the University of Michigan Library Special Collections Research Center; the Yale Center for British Art 

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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