7 Parrot & Cockatoo symbolic meaning in European visual art
What do parrots symbolize in European art
It is very difficult to look at the meaning of cockatoos in European visual art without looking at the entire parrot family. Therefore, I am going to use the word “parrot” in replacement of “aockatoo” unless specified.
Why are parrots valued?
In the 13th century, parrots became a favorable subject to many European painters. There are several reasons for it.
1. Alexander the Great and Parrots
Alexander the Great was the first to introduce parrots into Europe. In ancient Greece, many famous philosophers and writers — Aristotle, Pliny, and Apuleius — wrote about parrots. The intelligence and power of speech of parrots were seen as human qualities unrivaled by other animals.
2. Exotic commodities
In the middle ages, European perceived parrots as high-prized and exotic commodities. People used parrot plumage for decorative purposes. Thus, parrots were associated with material value.
7 Symbolic meaning of parrots
1. Parrots in Biblical meanings
From the 13th to 17th century, parrots in religious paintings were given an exalted state.
As a representation of Mary
“Popinjay” is the Middle English word for parrots. The word acquired a new figurative meaning as “a lady, the Virgin Mary” in the 15th century.
In paintings like The Madonna Della Vittoria (Andrea Mantegna, 1496) or Madonna and Child with Canon van der Paele (Jan van Eyck, 1336), the artists depicted parrots — in these cases cockatoos — as Mary or as the representation of Mary
As a witness in the Garden of Eden
Later on, people celebrated parrots with another key role: as an eyewitness to the fall of man in the garden of Eden.
A good example is Ruben’s Titan’s fall of man, where a wary macaw watched with an alarming expression at Eve and the serpent.
The trend of parrots as religious symbols eventually died off in the 17th century.
2. Parrots as glorified objects
After the trend as religious symbols, parrots managed to take on another role in European visual arts.
Many artists started depicting parrots as exotic objects. The purpose is to show off the wealth of the European noble class.
Age of Exploration
The Age of Exploration expanded the variety of parrots available in the market.
Parrots were coming from Africa, America, and the far East. Parrots were valued for their vivid plumage. They were seen as decorative, exotic, and highly prized commodities.
A good example of this is Still life with parrots by Roelof Koets in 1640. The painting featured a sulphur crested cockatoo standing on a wooden table with baskets of fruits.
Jakob Bogdani was another artist that included parrots and cockatoos in his paintings.
The Hungarian artist moved to Amsterdam at age of 26 and then to London. He painted for wealthy patrons in England of their aviary at Windsor Park.
Some of his famous paintings include Birds and Fruit in a Landscape (1708-10) and Two Macaws, a Cockatoo, and a Jay, with Fruit (1710).
Jessie Arms Botke
Jessie Arms Botke was an American artist born in 1883 in Chicago, Illinois. Botke moved from Chicago, New York, and San Francisco, and settled in Southern California. Her interest in birds was first kindled by a mural commission done for actress Billie Burke.
Botke’s work is highly exotic, featuring cranes, swans, geese, albino peacocks, and oftentimes white cockatoos. Her paintings are often embellished with greenery, flowers, and gold or silver foil.
3. Parrots as little human
Another role parrots took on in the history of visual art was “surrogate human”.
In Francisco Goya’s etching Que pico de Oro(What a golden beak) of 1799, an African grey parrot could be seen taking on a role of a teacher or leader, surrounded by a group of humans kneeling in crazed demeanor. Goya used the parrot as a metaphor for human ignorance and blind submission to instructions. In this case, the instruction was passed on by a parrot, which presumably gained its learning by mimicry.
Performing human activities
Another interesting example is Henry Stacy Marks’s A Select Committee of 1891. In this painting, the macaws and the cockatoos were having a debate or discussion led by the hyacinth macaw.
A variety of human-like expressions could be found on the birds’ faces: surprised, disbelieved, and doubtful. Marks employed human emotion on parrots and used parrots as a surrogate for humans.
4. Parrots as cultural references
Frans Snyders’s Concert of Birds is a good example showing how parrots and birds were used to reference cultural contexts.
In this piece, a colorful range of birds surrounded an owl as a concertmaster. The owl was holding a musical score. The painting’s theme referenced Aesop’s The Owl and the Birds, and also Dutch’s saying, “Every bird sings the way he knows how” or “Every bird sings with the beak it has been given”.
Frans Snyders’s Concert of Birds (17th century)
5. Parrots as pets
Renoir’s painting in 1871, Woman with a Parrot, was innovative in its depiction of parrots. It did not display the parrot as an exotic adornment or a mere accouterment. The budgie was instead displayed as a lovable companion, fully engaged in the interaction with its owner. This was the first time an artist depicted a parrot as a much-loved pet.
6. Cockatoos as abstracted symbols
Moving onto the 20th century, parrots’ popularity in visual arts dropped. However, several artists managed to include parrots in their work with a new level of symbolic meanings.
The German surrealist master, Max Ernst, used his pet — a pink cockatoo — as inspiration for his alter ego, Loplop.
Max Ernst & childhood trauma
From an early age, Max Ernst did drawings to bring balance to his agitated temperament. He constructed myths around his childhood traumas and the magical incubation of his homelands. Along with these two major pillars, he also referenced religion, geography, fairy tales, and politics.
Pet cockatoo’s death
According to Ernst, an incident that happened to his best friend — a pink cockatoo — affected him the most. The intelligent and affectionate bird died on the night before Ernst’s sister was born.
According to Ernst, the two incidents clouded his consciousness and thus confusion between birds and humans loomed in his mind.
Dadaism & Surrealism
All surrealist artists used their past memories as a codification of how they see themselves and the world. Ernst is no exception.
In the Dada movement in Cologne before 1920, Ernst always used bird imagery in his works. But it wasn’t until 1928 to early 1930 that he formally introduced Loplop.
Loplop, “the Bird Superior”, became one of Ernst’s favorite alter egos. But, it would be a mistake to assume that Loplop was Max Ernst. Loplop represented Ernst, but also his interpretation of his own world.
Loplop was a half-bird and half-human creature. He functioned as a familiar animal.
As in many cases of surrealists, the persona was an aesthetic device to conceal oneself from the public. This is not saying the persona is fake, but rather a method or subject the artists used to explore truth and myths.
Loplop also took on the qualities of shamans and totems from time to time.
7. Parrots as design elements
Joseph Cornell is an American artist and filmmaker. He is best known for his pioneering work as an Assemblage. In 2018, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York hosted a show about Cornell, Birds of a Feather, Joseph Cornell’s Homage to Juan Gris.
Cornell was particularly inspired by Cubist artist, Juan Gris. A dozen of Cornell’s boxes were dedicated to Gris’s works. A white umbrella cockatoo was presented in every one of the boxes exhibited.
Yet, Cornell seemed to be more interested in the compositional qualities of the cockatoos. In the first couple of boxes, the umbrella cockatoo is visibly positioned in the center. But, in later boxes, Cornell started abstracting the cockatoos. Oftentimes, one would only be able to see a broad silhouette of where the cockatoo used to be in previous boxes.
In other words, he started expressing his artistic ambitions using cockatoos as a motif.
Notable Cockatoo Arts
Now that we have discussed the role of parrots in visual art, let’s look at several old paintings or installations that featured cockatoos.
Paroquets by Edward Murphy
Paroquets by Edward Murphy (c.1796 – 1841) featured a scarlet macaw and a Moluccan cockatoo (and a ring-necked parakeet upside down in the back) against a background of sky and foliage.
The Cockatoos by William Roberts
The Cockatoos by William Roberts (1895-1980) in 1958 featured a scene of a pet shop in Camden Town.
Roberts was a founding member of the Vorticist movement in London and embraced the art of Post-Impressionism, Cubism, and Futurism.
The painting featured several cockatoos and macaws on one side, and a family visiting the pet shop on the other side.
Roberts laid out the painting in a grid system using straight lines, right angles, and bold shapes.
The artist positioned the parrots in such rivaling proportion in comparison to the humans. This decision went against the tradition.
William Roberts’s The Cockatoos (1958)
The Aviary, Clifton by Joseph Crawhall
The Aviary, Clifton by Joseph Crawhall (1861-1913) was a watercolor piece featuring an umbrella cockatoo, several other sulphur-crested cockatoos, and macaws at the back.
Although Crawhall initially discarded the piece, a friend managed to rescue it.
The Aviary, Clifton was considered one of the masterpieces by Joseph Crawhall. The quick strokes depicted the birds with immediacy and thus denied to assign more humanized meanings to parrots.
Parrot arts in Ornithology
Other than Fine Arts, parrots and cockatoos were often depicted in high quality within ornithological art.
Artists first started painting birds when the demand to organize and illustrate birds increased. In the beginning, artists relied heavily on dead specimens. But, due to a lack of preservation technologies, skin deteriorated quickly.
Parrot Artist in science
Albrecht Durer was among the first to capture parrots for scientific purposes. He did most of his drawings based on the skin of parrot specimens, and because of that, there were many errors in his drawings.
John James Audubon
One cannot talk about the bird arts in Ornithology without talking about John James Audubon. Audubon was a French-Haitian artist born in 1785. His “Bird of America (1838)” is still one of the finest books ever produced. He was credited to have introduced ornithological art to the public.
Due to the lack of native parrot species in America, the only parrot captured by Audubon was the extinct Carolina Parakeet.
English artist born in 1804, Elizabeth Gould was famous because of her husband, John Gould. John Gould published A Century of Birds from Himalayan Mountains, The Birds of Europe, and The Bird of Australia.
Gould produced many of the plates within these books. Gould was one of the first scientific illustrators with superb details and accurate proportions in her drawings. Her drawings even met the standard of today’s Guild of Natural Science Illustrators
English artist born in 1812, Lear began painting parrots in 1830 at the age of 18.
He used live birds at the London Zoological Society as models. He was aiming to draw all members of the parrot family and publish 14 folios.
Lear did not have the financial capacity to hire engravers, so he executed all his drawings using lithography himself.
His Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidae was artistically remarkable but financially unsuccessful.
Even Charles Darwin consulted Lear’s scientific illustrations in the 1840s and 1850s. Lear macaw was named in his honor.
Elizabeth Gould’s Major Mitchell Cockatoo
Change of purpose of parrots’ (& cockatoos’) drawings
The purpose of scientific illustrations of birds changed over time. Since the Renaissance, artists drew the whole bird for comparison and classification. Yet, with the invention of photography at the turn of the century, the purpose of painting birds had changed. It focused more on artistic execution.
William Thomas Cooper’s Red-tailed Black Cockatoo
William Thomas Cooper
Australian artist William Thomas Copper (1934-2015) was regarded as “Australia’s greatest living scientific painter of birds” during his lifetime.
His career took off when he started doing bird illustrations. Many books that he illustrated included Parrots of the World, Cockatoo, and Turacos, and Australian Parrots. His paintings were done in watercolor with high precision and lively backgrounds. Even more amazing, he did most of his paintings in the field.
Born in 1949, British artist Elizabeth Butterworth is a contemporary artist. She is well known for her parrot drawings in the field of natural history.
Butterworth studied at the Royal College of Arts in London in 1971. Upon receiving a scarlet macaw as a gift from her boyfriend, she began making drawings of the bird.
She maintained scientific accuracy while capturing the birds at their spontaneous moments.
She credited her lively illustrations to her personal experience with macaws, “She has bred macaws, looked after them, fed them, and listened to their noisy antics from the first call of the morning to the last shriek at night.”
“she could tell you the number of feathers in a tail and the size of a beak to the nearest millimeters.”
Butterworth also took an active interest in the conservation of wild parrots.
Elizabeth Butterworth’s Wing of Guildings Amazon no 2
Capturing Parrot & Cockatoo in arts
Traditionally, artists assigned cockatoos (or parrots) with animistic views in European visual art. As Xandra Eden said in her book Uneasy nature, “In earlier periods, artists’ animistic representations of nature usually reflected the dominant religious beliefs of the time or served as moralist tales”.
In other words, humans assigned animistic meanings to parrots because of the religious narrative, moral necessity, and scientific constraint of the time. How is the depiction of cockatoos or parrots in arts going to change as science continues to grow?
Artist Process: How does this inspire me?
- Cockatoo arts in ornithology focused on recreating accurate depiction of cockatoo (and other birds) and their natural environment.
- Surrealist Max Ernst used Loplop — inspired by his pink Cockatoo — as a motif. He saw his pink Cockatoo as an extension to his childhood memory. In other words, he used his pink Cockatoo to convey messages and build images.
- Joseph Cornell wasn’t assigning any meanings to Cockatoo. He was simply attracted by the shapes, forms, lines, and colors of the bird, and used those elements for compositional purposes.
Subject vs Catalyst approach
- Cockatoo as subject: Depict the bird within its natural behavior, looks, and environment.
- Cockatoo as catalyst: Take the Cockatoo out of context and assign meanings, memories, and motifs.
Left: When one is immersed in guilt
Middle: When one resides in shadow
Right: When one is pierced by words
“It is a strange thing that all the memories have these two qualities. They are always full of quietness, that is the most striking thing about them; and even when things weren’t like that in reality, they still seem to have that quality. They are soundless apparitions, which speak to me by looks and gestures, wordless and silent- and their silence is precisely what disturbs me.”
-Erich Maria Remareque, All Quiet on the Western Front”
At Round 3, I attempted to combine my learnings from Round 1 and 2. The landscape became even more exaggerated and abstracted. A friend of mine commented that the Cockatoos in my work always appeared ghostly. I attributed it to the fact that they served as a distant memory of childhood. So I tried to emphasize that ghost-like quality in these two pieces.
I can see Chinese painting elements within these two pieces. I cannot wait to incorporate more Asian painting element or materials into my work.
Books Referenced for this blog:
Verdi, Richard. The Parrots in Art, New York, 2007
Eden, Xandra. Uneasy nature, United States, 2006
Warlick, M.E. Max Ernst and Alchemy – A magician in Search of Myth, 2001
Stokes, Charlotte. Surrealist Persona: Max Ernst’s “Loplop, Superior of Birds”, 1983
Lederer, Roger J. The Art of the Bird. The History of Ornithological Art through Forty Artists, Great Britain, 2019
Read about Monica Bowen, an art historian’s blog post about Parrots in art and artist, Gail Sibley’s article about Women and parrots in paintings – How they are depicted.