Cockatoos in Renaissance Art – rethinking what we thought we knew

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Getty Cockatoo Still Life

Still Life: Game, Vegetables, Fruit, Cockatoo. Adriaen van Utrecht. Flemish, 1650. Oil on canvas 46 x 98 1/16 in. This image is available for download, without charge, under the Getty’s Open Content Program.

This gorgeous still life hangs in the Los Angeles Getty Centre and last week I had the privilege of seeing it in person.*

Check the date: it was painted in 1650.  That’s 120 years before Cook ‘discovered’ Australia.  So how on earth did an Australian cockatoo come to find itself featuring in a Renaissance artwork?

As it happens, various species of cockatoo are indigenous to Indonesia and surrounds – the Spice Islands, as they used to be known.  So it is not unlikely that individual birds were captured, or tamed, and returned with trading ships to Europe.

I’m no bird specialist, but to my amateur eye the cocky in this painting does not look at all well.  Its feathers are not lying smoothly, its crest is lowered, and it is remarkably sanguine about all that luscious fruit.  What sort of cockatoo would be calmly looking at such a feast, rather than voraciously attacking it; spoiling it all by taking small bites from each piece before moving to the next?  To invoke Monty Python, the cockatoo in fact looks like a dead parrot.  Which it may well have been – with the painter using a dead specimen as a model.

But our sickly cockatoo is not alone.  As it happens, another cockatoo can be found in an even earlier painting, this one completed in 1496.  Read the full article (which includes a picture of the 1496 painting) here, in The Guardian.

 

* Don’t get too envious.  My single day of sightseeing in LA came at the end of six very long days (and nights) of hard work in a windowless hotel conference room, concentrating on the policy complexities surrounding the Internet’s domain name system.  When my kids are naughty I threaten to explain it all to them.  In full.

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6 responses »

  1. There’s another cockatoo in a painting of the Holy Family by Jan Breughel and Pieter van Avont – hopefully this link will take you to it – http://www.pinakothek.de/sites/default/files/imagecache/thumb_lightbox_light/gemaelde/original/2104_22316.jpg

    I don’t know the date, but Breughel died in 1625, so it’s earlier than that. I think a lot of religious paintings post-Columbus were aiming to show the breadth of God’s creation by including animals and plants from the New World, either dead or alive.

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    • Wow. What a cornucopia. And that cockatoo looks much healthier! Great link, thank you. Interesting to think about how much of the New World wasn’t – to the European sailors at least – so very new at all. And of course not at all new to the people already there. I do sometimes wonder how much exploring was undertaken by merchants/pirates/whalers before the naval expeditions officially made their ‘discoveries’.

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  2. I’m just catching up on blog posts I follow. Enjoyed this. Glad you at least got to the Getty Centre. It’s a fantastic place. Enjoyed your commentary on the poor parrot.

    As for your conference, you can have it! If I were your children I’d be behaving very, very well!

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