Birds in art

I was reading the recently published and highly recommended work “Birds of the Homeplace” by Anthony McGeehan and noted his observation about the accuracy of historic paintings of birds. He talks in Chapter 2. Language Lessons about 40,000 year old cave paintings being as accurate as a contemporary field guide. I hope to review this book soon. It is still reading in progress at present but you can and should buy it now. It is not a field guide but a highly accessible yet scholarly work on birds and specifically Irish birds. There are illustrations aplenty to keep the text-shy, photo junky enraptured.

His comment reminded me that I had snapped a few details of paintings in The Prado exactly because they featured birds. BIrds indeed that looked to be very well executed. Whoever painted the goldfinch knew his stuff.


Forgive the quality of my image – this is a huge crop of a detail and I can’t pinpoint immediately the original painting. It looks vaguely Flemish. Be that as it may, lets look at the accuracy. The Helm guide to Finches & Sparrows says:

Very distinctive  – red on face extends slightly behind eye – by golly it does. Tick

Black crown and nape – the crown doesn’t show well here but another tick for the nape

White sides to face and throat – we are on a roll. Tick

Pale brown or deep buff above with a paler or whitish rump – perhaps a little dark but the painting has aged and I am sure it would buff up nicely.

Black wings with yellow flash and white tips to flight feathers – the yellow has faded perhaps but the pattern is good.

In short, if you saw this bird in the field today as shown above you would be able to identify it as a Goldfinch with ease. Whoever painted this was not only a dab hand with a brush but a splendid observer of the natural world, familiar with birds in their natural habitat. I don’t think the painter has nipped down to the local taxidermist and borrowed a specimen. This is Lars Jonsson stuff.

I find it reassuring and somewhat humbling that after all these centuries, perhaps 400 in the case of the cave paintings, we still struggle to improve on field ID. Now all you need to do is to rush off and order Anthony’s book so you can discover, as I did, which of the senses a Blackbird uses to find its worms.

16 thoughts on “Birds in art

  1. I think we, as modern folk, have a bit of conceit concerning those who got us to this point. I thought this a while back when I read a 100 year old book on raising peonies and was shocked at how equally complete the information was compared with a more recent publication…which probably got most of its information from the older text. So our forebears would probably have been just as observant as are we and, out of necessity for survival, maybe even more so.

  2. Glad you are liking the book it is superb. He has to be one of the finest commentators on all things birds. I’m in awe of his observational ability and that he can put it down on paper in such a rewarding way.

  3. It would be interesting to see more of the painting, to see where the Goldfinch fit in the scene.
    Thanks for sharing about books of the homeplace.

I'd be delighted to hear what you think

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