The first chapter of this beautifully produced book outlines the history of bird painting in the Netherlands, focusing on Melchior d’Hondecoeter, the “Raphael” of the genre. Especially well characterized is d’Hondecoeter’s accomplishment of connecting the tradition of descriptive animal depiction established by Roelandt Savery with the dramatic animal scenes developed by Frans Snyders in cooperation with Peter Paul Rubens. The second chapter explores fables and animal emblems in their most important phases, giving special treatment to the moralizing tale of classical origin about birds that adorn themselves with borrowed plumes. Eager to overturn the notion of bird paintings as merely decorative phenomena, and to escape the stranglehold of the iconographic-emblematic tradition, Wepler devotes the entire third chapter to examining theoretical components of pictorial analysis. She concludes this travel-diary through the bookshelves of interdisciplinary art history by citing Gombrich’s sound comments on the effectiveness of temporal narrative on pictorial perception, insisting, however, that the interpretive methods offered by literary narratology must be tested for their appropriateness when dealing with visual material.
The fourth chapter, the heart of the book, examines bird images, giving special attention to the smallest details of their representation. The author examines a balanced selection of paintings (out of a pool of 850), arranging them in sections of between five and twenty pages according to the prevailing theme represented: “Ambush, Perceive, Startle – Hunter and Booty”, “Attack, Defend, Subdue – Brave and Fallen Heroes”, “Communicate – The Brave Magpie”, “Lure, Berate – The Owl as Decoy”, “Conduct, Cacophonize – The Owl as Conductor”, “Quarrel – Conflicts of Interest Communicatively Carried Out”, “Battle – Creating and Punishing the Pecking Order”, “Punish – The Thieving Crow”, “Triumph – Victor of the Battle.” Interspersed are two special iconographic cases: “The Threatened Swan” and “Birds on a Balustrade.” Most of the sections focus upon representations by Melchior d’Hondecoeter. The fifth chapter, “Stories and Tales in Bird Painting,” makes an important contribution by reviewing art-theoretical statements pertaining to bird painting by Van Mander, Houbraken and De Lairesse. The book concludes with a list of major bird painters, a bibliography, and list of photo sources. Sadly, especially for time-pressed readers, it contains no index.
Although her text discloses in places its origin as academic thesis – some parts are either too cursorily or too elaborately worked out – Wepler is to be commended for concentrating on a topic previously only sporadically treated. She also deserves credit for attempting a mode of interpretive analysis free from the iconographic model, which she perceives as constricting. As has become increasingly clear in the aftermath of the Alpers-Miedema controversy, the notion that one can provide interpretations with a solid foundation by inferring generally binding analyses of paintings through inductive collecting of emblems is a deceptive exaggeration. Literary sources do not function as inductive foundations. Instead, emblematic sources, no less than other records from literature or other genres, may only serve the critical corroboration of interpretations. As to the analysis of bird painting, it follows that one may speak of narration and meaning without recourse to concepts of literary narratology.
Wepler pursues the question of the abundant inventiveness of painters of the bird genre. She asks, “What strategies do painters use in an ostensibly decorative genre in order to communicate narratives, thus making their paintings more interesting? … Are these strategies specific to bird painting or can they be observed in other genres?” (p. 7) I must admit to a different, somewhat more conventional interest: the external functions of bird images. What role did such pictures play as wall decoration? What reality do they depict? What place in life did paintings with local or exotic birds occupy? Asking these questions quickly reveals that the place of the exotic birds in the pictures by d’Hondecoeter and his specialized colleagues was the garden or park of a country estate. Seventeenth-century Netherlandish gardens (despite all admiration for Italian models) were designed in the sixteenth-century tradition of domains, consisting of, besides the ornamental garden, several other components: the kitchen garden, orchard, area for games and archery, menagerie, fish pond, and poultry yard. Albrecht von Waldstein (Wallenstein) even had an aviary erected in the garden of his palace in Prague that still exists today. The focus of her attention elsewhere, Wepler has little to say on this matter.
The author leaves other significant questions to be answered by future investigators. Is there a possible connection between her material and the numerous representations of birds painted on glass by artists such as Haarlem’s Pieter Holsteyn the Elder and the Younger? Would a closer study of drawings, the working processes of copying, compiling, accumulating and adapting different sources yield new and interesting results? (This is an area that Wepler only raises briefly in regard to d’Hondecouter and his successors.)
Such criticisms aside, Wepler’s book is a great, all-round delight. It presents a giant step in a field of research almost criminally neglected in the past. Providing valuable art-historical instruction, it is beautiful enough to display on a coffee table.
(Translated by Kristin Belkin)