BARRABAND, Jacques (1767-1809). Red-Billed Toucan (Le Tocan a Collier Jaune). Watercolor and gouache on paper. c. 1800
Jacques Barraband's watercolors of birds are masterpieces of French ornithological illustration.
Most of his stunning portraits were done for the distinguished ornithologist François
Levaillant, who commissioned the artist to illustrate several of his beautiful publications, including the lavishly illustrated landmark text on African ornithology, Histoire Naturelle des Perroquets (Natural History of Parrots, 1801-05), as well as the dazzling Histoire naturelle des oiseaux de paradis et des rolliers, suivie de celles des toucans et des barbus (Natural History of Birds of Paradise and Rollers, followed by that of toucans and bearded birds, 1801-06). Barraband produced this original watercolor for the latter publication; it stands as a prime example of the artist’s mastery of color and texture, and the delicate nuances that set his birds apart from all others.
The engravings for the Birds of Paradise are indeed incredibly beautiful and display a scientific accuracy few ornithological artists have been able to achieve. The meticulous hand-coloring displays delicate modulations of tone and color, fine lines, and perfect draftsmanship. Each feather is described by dozens of parallel lines, providing remarkable detail and naturalistic color. Some of the prints are even embellished with touches of gold leaf on the feathers of the cheeks and shoulders of the birds, emphasizing the preciousness of the plates and reproducing the iridescence of the birds' feathers. Still, these engravings are simply no match for the superb watercolor originals which exemplify Barraband’s unparalleled ability to render splendidly naturalistic images of exotic birds of all forms.
Indeed, the present work is exceptional in richness and tonal variation, as though Barraband is defying the engraver to match the fine detail and sumptuous coloring of the original. The artist presents the red-billed toucan in a signature posture, standing proudly on a perch: a simple composition that allows the bird’s dazzling features to speak for themselves. With its legs astride, the body is slightly turned to show the bold contrasts that mark its velvety plumage and the brilliant coloring that gives the red-billed toucan its name. In fact, the original publication describes the bird as le tocan a collier jaune, or “the toucan with the yellow necklace,” because of the bright yellow band across its breast, ornamenting the body like the gilded braiding of an aiguillette across an honorific soldier’s uniform. The velvety-soft feathers add to the bird’s resplendent air; magnificently rendered, their plushness is evoked through the artist’s delicate brushwork and incredibly subtle gradations of color, such that the bird almost comes to function as a study of black-on-black and white-on-white, a notoriously difficult technical achievement with a tradition of works devoted to its pursuit being exhibited in the French Salon.
Ranging across Western Amazonia, the red-billed toucan is the second largest toucan, and Levaillant’s accompanying entry speaks to the difficulty of both representing and classifying this exotic bird. According to the ornithologist, this was a new kind of toucan, or at the very least a subspecies with derivative chromatic variation. Levaillant's hypothesis was on point, for the red-billed toucan, along with Cuvier’s toucan, is now considered a subspecies of the white-throated toucan, and interbreeding can produce sometimes misleading color schemes. The other issue Barraband and Levaillant had to contend with was the fact that the birds being studied were stuffed models. This explains why the bare, blue skin around the eye—so striking in the wilderness—is more subtly rendered in the image; Levaillant and Barraband perceptively observed a bluish tint conserved in the eye, though they could not know the brightness it should attain. That the ornithologist and the artist were able to produce such a fine example of the majestic red-billed toucan is thus a testament to Levaillant’s knowing eye and Barradand’s exceptional artistry, as well as the brilliance of this historic collaboration.
The son of a weaver at the Aubusson tapestry factory, Barraband studied under Joseph Malaine and subsequently worked as a draftsman in the Gobelin tapestry works. He painted porcelains that were exhibited at the Paris Salons from 1798 through 1806, and records at Sèvres show that he supplied drawings to the factory there in 1806. Between 1801 and 1804, he produced several watercolors of birds and insects for Napoleon Bonaparte, who also commissioned him to decorate the dining room of his château at St. Cloud. However, his work for François Levaillant was without doubt the climax of his career, and his drawings for Levaillant's splendid works place him at the forefront of French ornithological artists at the turn of the 19th century.
C. 1800. Watercolor and gouache on paper. Signed: “Barraband fecit.” 15 x 20 1/2 inches.
Description provided by Julia Stimac, a specialist in nineteenth-century art. Julia received her BA from Cornell University and MA from University of Manchester, and she is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Washington. Please contact Julia at 212-628-7625 to arrange a viewing of this work, or visit Arader Galleries at 1016 Madison Avenue, New York.