Perspectives Nature

Birding at The Met: A Selection of Drawings and Prints

Learn how birds have served as a source of endless inspiration for artists from the 16th century through the present.

Sep 23, 2022

Composite of two blue-winged yellow swamp warblers next to a flower

Earlier this year, a positive PCR test extended my stay in Vienna. To keep active during my quarantine, I took daily walks in the city. I soon noticed a nest built by a pair of swans on the stone bank of the Wiental Canal. The nest was surrounded by city rubble and near a busy road. The safety of the swans and their nest soon became a preoccupation of mine. Others were equally transfixed; a construction worker from a nearby site spent his lunch breaks on the walkway overlooking the nest. My constancy and patience were eventually rewarded with a peek at nine beautiful ivory-green eggs, but my quarantine ended before they hatched. After returning home to New York, I found myself wondering about the baby swans, even checking social media channels to see if anyone had posted updates.  

Black and white etching of swans on water with flowers on the background
Wenceslaus Hollar (Bohemian, 1607–77) after Francis Barlow (British, ca. 1626–1704). Two Swans, 1654–58. Etching; second state of two, 5 1/8 × 7 4/8 in. (13.2 × 18.9 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1917 (17.3.2858)

Pandemic restrictions on indoor activities and entertainment caused many to seek solace in nature and created a significant rise in the number of amateur birders. Of course, the pleasures of birdwatching have been around for centuries, motivated by the fleeting and exhilarating encounters with nature’s creatures. Few of these sightings, however, offer an opportunity to appreciate avian beauties in detail. Nowadays, this is easily remedied by the thousands of images and videos available to us, from David Attenborough’s The Life of Birds (1998) to the bird cams at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. In the days before nature photography and documentaries, however, artists played a significant role in allowing us to study the natural world. From the sixteenth century onward, concerted efforts were made to discover the wide variety of bird species from around the globe and to document them in drawings, prints, and paintings. As such, The Met’s collection of works on paper is rich in bird portraits. After my return from Vienna, I went “birding” in our storerooms to explore how artists engaged with these feathered subjects. A small selection of my discoveries is currently on view in our rotating display

View of the Robert Wood Johnson Gallery  showing drawings and prints of birds
View of the Robert Wood Johnson Jr. Gallery

While individual artists had drawn animals and botanical subjects from close observation at least since the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century, it was in the second half of the sixteenth century that the growing demand for empirical evidence and widespread collecting interests by scholars and wealthy patrons alike encouraged a greater number of artists to specialize in this practice. The French painter Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues was part of the vanguard. He was active in France and England in the third quarter of the century and visited North America in 1564 on an expedition to Florida, where he documented the local plants and animals they encountered.

Watercolor of a blue and brown kingfisher on a branch
Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues (French, ca. 1533–88). A Kingfisher on a Branch, 16th century. Watercolor and gouache over traces of black chalk, 4 1/2 × 7 in. (11.5 × 18 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, David T. Schiff Gift, 2004 (2004.77)

Le Moyne’s A Kingfisher on a Branch (sixteenth century) beautifully illustrates how artists were able to closely reproduce the appearance of specific birds in watercolor and gouache. The translucence of watercolor allowed for the underdrawing to remain partially visible, which was often used to suggest the various textures of the feathers, while the relative opacity of gouache emphasized their bold coloration. The addition of highlights in a bright white paint—a technique known as white heightening—was employed to indicate the sheen or iridescence of certain species. 

Composite image of a great titmouse on a branch and a bramling on a branch
Left: Pieter Withoos (Dutch, 1654–93), A Great Titmouse (Parus major) Perched on a Branch, 1670–93. Watercolour and gouache, 9 1/4 × 7 3/8 in. (23.5 × 18.8 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Alain and Marie-Christine van den Broek d'Obrenan Gift, 2008 (2008.602). Right: Gerardus van Veen (Dutch, 1620–83), A Bramling (Fringilla Montifringilla) on a Branch, 1679. Watercolor over graphite, 5 3/8 × 7 3/8 in. (13.7 × 18.7 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Frits and Rita Markus Fund, 2001 (2001.509) 

Le Moyne’s choice to present his kingfisher from the side and perched on a branch became one of the standard modes of representation for this kind of bird portrait. (Numerous examples can be found in The Met collection.) The choice was a practical one. A branch provides a natural resting place for a bird’s curved talons, while also suggesting that the drawings were made from fleeting encounters en plain air. Artists also drew specimens that were (temporarily) kept in captivity, or ones that had been taxidermied.  

Book on a black background open to a page showing a black and red bird and text about the Rose or Carnation-colored Ouzel of Aldrov
George Edwards (British, 1694–1773), Spread from: A Natural History of Uncommon Birds (…) vol. 1, 1743. Printed for the author by Royal College of Physicians, London. Letterpress and etched illustrations. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Mrs. Darwin S. Morse, 1963 (63.709.7(1))

The close-up bird studies were often collected in folders or albums in larger ornithological or zoological collections. From the eighteenth century onward, efforts were made to bring such illustrations together in encyclopedic publications that provided not only images, but also accurate descriptions of the birds and their behavioral patterns. George Edwards’s A Natural History of Uncommon Birds (1743–51) is an early example. The ornithologist learned how to etch so that he could personally provide the illustrations for this expansive four-volume publication. 

Composite of two illustrations, to the left a blue-winged yellow swamp warbler on a branch and to the right two yellow parakeets next to a flower
Left: François Levaillant (French, 1753–1824), Plate 25; from Histoire naturelle des perroquets, 1801–06. Hand-colored etching and engraving, 20 6/8 × 13 1/2 in. (52.5 × 34.4 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of Mrs. Charles Wrightsman, 2019 (2019.282.34). Right: John T. Bowen (American, ca. 1801–56) after John James Audubon (American 1785–1851), The Blue-Winged Yellow Swamp Warbler, from: The Birds of America from Drawings Made in the United States,1840–44. Published by J. B. Chevalier (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania). Illustrations: hand-colored lithographs,  10 × 6 3/8 in. (25.4 × 16.2 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of Emma Sheafer, 1974 (1974.661.4(1–7))

Despite this turn to print, color long remained the domain of expert painters because there were not yet any printing techniques in place that could replicate the intricate and often variegated palette of plumage. For their much-celebrated publication Histoire naturelle des perroquets (Natural History of Parakeets, 1801–06), François Levaillant and Jacques Barraband used a combination of color printing and additions by hand in watercolor, which resulted in astoundingly lifelike illustrations. Even John James Audubon’s famous Birds of America , while printed in intricate life-size intaglio prints (1827–38) and later in the modern and commercially viable technique of lithography (1840–71), still depended on hand coloring to achieve the accuracy he desired. 

Drypoint of two ravens on a branch, looking towards each other
Henry Emerson Tuttle (American, 1890–1946), Conversation Piece—Ravens, 1934. Drypoint; first state 8 1/2 × 12 7/8 in. (21.6 × 32.7 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Mrs. Emerson Tuttle, 1946 (46.59.2 )

The drypoint etchings of the printmaker and curator Henry Emerson Tuttle demonstrate that great accuracy can also be achieved without the addition of color. Tuttle became a fervent birder during his childhood, which was spent in a secluded and rural location due to illness. In his adult years, he combined his passion for birds with a talent for printmaking. He learned how to skillfully match the inherent qualities of the print medium with the physical appearance of the birds he studied, resulting in hyperrealistic depictions of his subjects. By the time of their making, however, many other artists had forsaken the objective of accuracy for more playful and decorative representations of birds.    

Composite image of birds
Top Left: Félix Bracquemond (French, 1833–1914), Soup plate (part of a set of three). Produced by Eugêne Rousseau (1827–91) Manufacturer: Lebeuf et Milliet, 1866–75. Creamware, Diameter: 9 3/4 in. (24.8 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Friends of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts Gifts, 1996 (1996.161.1). Top Right: Félix Bracquemond (French, 1833–1914), Decoration for a Plate: A Duck flying over Snow-covered Branches, 1850–1914. Etching with watercolor, 18 3/4 × 11 7/8 in. (47.5 × 30.2 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 1922 (22.69.25). Bottom Right and Left: Charles Gillot (French, 1853–1903) after Jules-August Habert-Dys (French, 1850–1930), Fantaisies Décoratives, 1886–87, printed by E. Ménard et J. Augry, published by J. Rouam (Paris) and Gibert Wood & Co. (London). Chromolithography,  17 3/8 ×  13 9/16 ×  1 5/8 in. (44.1 ×  34.4 ×  4.2 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of S.P. Avery, transferred from the Library 1991 (1991.1073.227)

During the second half of the nineteenth century, nature studies became an integral part art and design academies across Europe. To move away from the architectural vocabularies of historic period styles, the shapes, colors, and textures of animals and plants became an important source of inspiration for the decorative arts. Art students were taught how to draw from life—which often entailed working from taxidermied specimens—before learning how to create attractive patterns that could be used to decorate a variety of objects. Artists such as Félix Braquemond and Jules Auguste Habert-Dys produced series of prints containing ideas for such patterns, which were used by students and professionals alike. The designs of both artists were influenced by Japanese woodblock prints, which were heavily collected across Europe at the time and often rich in bird imagery.

Composite image of two owls in front of a landscape and an orange owl on a beige background with a black border
Left: Theodorus van Hoytema (Dutch, 1863–1917), Christmas Eve (Kerstnacht), 1894. Lithograph, second state of two, 18 11/16 × 12 1/16 in. (47.5 × 30.6 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Peco Foundation, 2022 (2022.15.1). Right: Samuel Jessurun de Mesquita (Dutch, 1868–1944), Written by Johan Anton van der Boom (Dutch, 1895–1960), Published by J.A.A.M. van Es (Wassenaar). Samuel Jessurun de Mesquita, 1928. Illustrated book with three original woodcuts, 12 1/2 × 9 1/2 in. (31.8 × 24.1 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, 2017 (2017.150)

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, a tendency toward abstraction led to the development of new vocabularies and heralded the arrival of style periods known today as Art Nouveau and Art Deco. The designs of the Dutch artists Theo van Hoytema and Samuel de Mesquita show the progressive stages of this process of abstraction. The two owls at the center of Hoytema’s lithograph, Christmas Eve (1894), still appear as in nature, but below, he has incorporated a subtle decorative border with a row of abstracted owls in white and black. The cover illustration of a 1928 book dedicated to Mesquita’s art reduces the characteristics of the owl to several effectively placed color blocks and hatchings, which manage to evoke the nature of the animal without going into much detail.

Stonecut of two owls surrounded by serpentine creatures with beaks
Kenojuak Ashevak (Inuit, 1927–2013), Owls Enveloped, 2005. Stonecut 21 × 27 in. (53.3 × 68.6 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Ditte Wolff, 2015 (2015.751.7)

Birds, and owls in particular, also feature prominently in the drawings and stonecuts by the Cape Dorset artist Kenojuak Ashevak. While often thought to represent well-known Inuit myths and animal stories, most reflect distinctly personal interests and choices by the artist. Her unique transformations of various birds and other animals, created from the 1950s onward, are characterized by bold colors and enveloping crowns of plumage, leaves, or serpentine creatures that move beyond the concept of abstraction into the realm of dreams and the imaginary. However, her Owls Enveloped (2005) are not the only fantastical birds featured in the current installation.  

Pen and brown ink bird study featuring human features and horns
Attributed to Andrés de Melgar (Spanish, died after 1554), Studies for birds and grotesque masks (recto), ca. 1545–60. Pen and brown ink, 8–3/4 × 13-1/4 in. (22.4 × 33.5 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, 1952 (52.570.317)

Almost four hundred years earlier, a Spanish artist, possibly the painter Andrés de Melgar, took his pen to hand and sketched a collection of imaginative birds and masks. The resulting works are part of the vocabulary of so-called Flemish grotesques—a type of ornament that was developed in Flanders during the late 1530s or early 1540s. It was inspired by Italian examples, which were based on rediscovered wall paintings from Roman Antiquity. These fanciful machinations were often condemned by art critics, especially because they held little semblance to the natural world. Yet, their popularity is attested to by their frequent and ongoing manifestations in designs by artists well into the eighteenth century. The invention of these birdlike miscreants shows the fruitful cross-pollination between nature as it was observed by artists and their creative inclination to subvert it. 

Two plates of birds on branches, one showcasing a city in the background and the other showing an arid field with people sitting on the ground
Matthew Day Jackson (American, born 1974). There Will Come Soft Rains, 2015–16. Portfolio of four-color, four-plate etchings, each sheet: 27 in. x 20 1/2 in. (68.6 × 52.1 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, John B. Turner Fund, 2016 (2016.356a–m)

In his portfolio There Will Come Soft Rains (2015–16), contemporary artist Matthew Day Jackson used subversion as a technique to remind us of a different relationship between man and nature. Beyond a source of admiration and artistic creation, humankind represents an active agent in its survival. In his twelve prints, Jackson juxtaposes some of Audubon’s canonic birds with imagery that addresses the impact of human intervention on the planet. A forest of skyscrapers rises up behind four unsuspecting wood ducks, while a view of the gallows from Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Triumph of Death (1562–63) signals the extinction of the ivory-billed woodpecker. The inclusion of extinct birds alongside others that have thrived make it a cautionary tale that reminds us not to take for granted the fragile ecosystems that support life on Earth.        

About the contributors

Femke Speelberg

Curator of Historic Ornament, Design, and Architecture Department of Drawings and Prints