A Still Life with a Bird of Paradise, Cowry Shells, a Watch and a Portrait Medallion of Emperor Leopold I

Oil on canvas
Signed: 'Steenwyck'
59.5 x 49.5 cms (23 3/8 x 19 1/2 inches)
Essay: 

A label au verso reads (Nic. Steenwijk / B ed.)

The combination of Leopold's medallion profile (at the time the most powerful man in the Western hemisphere) as well as the Cowry shells from the Indian ocean and the Bird of Paradise alludes to the trading reach and power of the Holy Roman Empire.

These bizarre (to their eyes) and striking Birds of Paradise were first introduced to Western eyes early in the 16th Century by Magellan on the return from his expedition of 1522. Paintings and watercolours of them mostly depict the skins of birds, which had been sent back to Holland from the Dutch East Indies. Early European painters had never had any opportunity to paint live examples of these exotic animals and therefore had to rely on either skins or stuffed examples sent home from these colonies. The traders in these skins often removed their feet and wings for them to serve as decorations, but this led to misconceptions and misrepresentations of them, namely that these birds never settled and flew eternally. Looking at 17th Century paintings, in particular paintings of Paradise like landscapes, the birds are depicted shooting through the sky like fireworks with long trailing feathers shooting out behind them.

These skins were of great value and, like other early 17th Century fashions, notably the ones for collecting exotic shells and tulip bulbs, were much sought after. The species depicted here is most likely the Greater Bird of Paradise or Paradisaea apoda. The suggestion in this painting is that the collector depicted in the miniature was a well travelled man and must have had connections to trade in the Dutch East Indies. Rembrandt executed two studies of Birds of Paradise on a single sheet (now in the Drawing Department of the Muse du Louvre and exhibited in their exhibition entitled "Rembrandt et son Ecole, Dessins du Musée du Louvre", Paris, 1988-89, no.26) and in the inventory made of his possessions after his death, it is recorded that he owned a stuffed Bird of Paradise.

Provenance: 

Sale, Frankfurt am Main, as by Abraham van Steenwijk, 24th April 1923, lot 162;
Private Collection, Rheinland-Pfalz.