I used to keep parrots – Maximillian Pionus, Black-headed Caiques, and Senegals – and sometimes I miss them. Today I came across a book called Parrot Culture by Bruce Thomas Boehrer (which I haven’t read and may or may not do so). On the cover is a painting by Courbet. I then recalled the painting by Manet I had seen last August at an exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago. It got me thinking about parrots in paintings. So I went on a wee search. There are a surprising number of parrots in paintings and here are just a few. Interestingly, as I wrote this blog, I realized it’s actually about how parrots and their relationship with a woman are depicted in painting. Take a look.
According to the notes on the Met’s website, this painting, when shown at the Salon of 1866, was criticized for its “lack of taste” and the model’s “ungainly” pose. Courbet (1817-1877) had apparently vowed to paint a nude the conservative jury would accept. Yet, this woman is modern and so unlike the sweet and idealized women painted by the Academic artists of the time. Courbet’s supporters praised him for painting “the real, living French woman.” The title itself tells us this as it makes no reference to history or mythology or the Bible. (Manet had submitted “Olympia” to the Salon the year before, also another distinctly modern woman.)
The erotic overtone is unmistakable. In an essay I read about the restoration of the painting, an X-ray revealed that in place of the parrot stand was originally a young man, possibly a representation of Courbet himself. The artist painted over the human form and replaced it with a parrot stand, which could indeed be read as a phallic symbol. Certainly the woman seems to be delighting in the encounter with the parrot. It reminds me of paintings of Leda and the Swan or Jupiter (Greek for Zeus) and Io.
The parrot looks a bit like a Blue-Fronted Amazon.
This was the painting I saw in the exhibition, Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity, in Chicago last year. It was so large!! And note, Courbet’s painting above is even larger! Shown at the Salon in 1868, Manet’s painting was finished in 1866, the year Courbet’s work was exhibited at the Salon. The model was the same one who posed for the nude in Manet’s “Olympia.” This time she’s covered but in the intimate attire of a silk dressing gown. Here the parrot, an African Grey, is on its perch. The orange at the base of the perch is food it has dropped. In an earlier time period, the orange would have symbolic meaning. Does it here? The painting doesn’t exhibit the overtly erotic overtones of the Courbet piece but nevertheless, there are hints of a hidden sexuality with the woman’s intelligent companion privy to her most personal life. The woman boldly looks at us, smelling flowers. Are they from her lover?
To read an interesting article from 1973 about the painting (that also includes information on the relationship of women and parrots as seen in art and literature through the centuries), click here and go and download it.
The Met’s notes say that recent scholars have interpreted the painting as “an allegory of the five senses: the nosegay (smell), the orange (taste), the parrot-confidant (hearing), and the man’s monocle she fingers (sight and touch).” What do you think? I’m not convinced.
Here we have a parrot out of its cage and on the hand of its owner. It’s difficult to make out the type of parrot but it looks like it may be a budgie. The cage and parrot may symbolize the woman herself, caged in a life not of her liking. She and the parrot relate to each other!
Notes on the Guggenheim website quote the art historian Colin B. Bailey,” In genre painting of the 1860s and 1870s, such richly dressed young women were generally assumed to be kept women—the lorette, or high-class courtesan, was a social type created during the Second Empire—and the erotic Symbolism of the parrot and the gilded bird cage would have been obvious. . . . Yet Renoir’s presentation of this lascivious subject is actually rather well-mannered. He avoids anecdote and innuendo, refuses to pander to the prurient beholder, and in doing so acknowledges his debt to Manet.” Ah hah! So there is some eroticism after all!
Another painting in the Met’s collection, this delightful painting was done 170 years before those by Courbet and Manet. This time, we see a Blue and Gold Macaw nibbling on what looks like a grape. The grape relates to Bacchus, god of wine and all that it brings with it including a sexual looseness. So certainly, the grape here along with its link to the parrot, symbolizes a feeling of eroticism.
This is a portrait of a real person in the company of her pet parrot (a confidante?) and a Blackamoor and dog (which I didn’t see the first time I looked at the painting). Even so, Largillierre (1656-1746) included the legs of a female sculptured figure in the top right. The slight lifting of the woman’s garment – do we dare read anything into that gesture that may result in the equivalent bare legs? Am I reading too much into the painting? And what about the positioning of what look like opium poppies?
A successful artist, Max Beckmann (1884-1950) fled Germany for The Netherlands in 1937 with Quappi, his second wife, following Adolf Hitler’s speech about degenerate art. That year, the government confiscated more than 500 of his works from German museums, putting several on display in the notorious Degenerate Art exhibition in Munich. This painting, created only a year earlier gives no clue as to the general upheaval of the time.
It is an intimate portrait of his wife with their pet Amazon parrot. Although there is no overt sexuality, it is notable that she is offering an apple to the bird, the fruit of knowledge leading to the downfall of Adam and Eve.
And finally we come to Frida Kahlo (1907-54). There are at least two other self-portraits with a parrot (Self Portrait with Bonita and Self Portrait With Monkey And Parrot) but in this painting, we have four of her pet parrots. Sally Blanchard identifies the Amazons – two double yellow-headed and two red-lored parrots. The parrots aren’t in great shape especially the one on the upper left and as Sally points out, Amazons are not known as feather-pickers. She wonders if it has “something to do with the fact that Frida Kahlo is as famous for her tortured soul as she is for her painting? Perhaps her parrots picked up her energy? Her self-portrait also shows her smoking a cigarette, so these Amazons might have had health problems based on second-hand smoke and.or nicotine dermatitis.”
And what of parrots and sexuality here? Well, the cigarette is a notorious post-sex activity yet Kahlo is alone. But she isn’t – she is surrounded by her pet confidantes. As with the parrots in the previous paintings, they are privy to their owner’s most personal life.
So as you can see, this blog took a direction I hadn’t planned on, it just went that way! So from Parrots in Paintings, it has become Women and Parrots in Paintings! Have you enjoyed it? Do you agree or disagree with my findings, opinions, assumptions? Did I go off the deep end?? I’d love to hear!!
Until next time,
PS. And why do pirates always have parrots on their shoulders???
PPS. Just had to link to Monty Python’s Dead Parrot Sketch even if it doesn’t have anything to do with parrots in paintings and certainly not women and parrots in paintings!
PPS. And one more link….to a strange scarlet macaw…….