BESSA, Pancrace (1772-1846). An Owl with its Prey. Paris: First quarter 19th-century.
Framed. (25 x 27 1/2 inches). Fine original watercolour and gouache drawing of a magnificent owl feasting on a smaller bird, on paper heightened with gum arabic, signed lower right by the artist "P. Bessa, Paris".
The eighteenth century saw a burgeoning of interest in birds and exotic animals, as aviaries and menageries were established across Europe. To begin with these were mainly housed as part of royal collections and could be found in the United Provinces at the palaces of the princes of Orange, and in France at Versailles. The expansion of trade and growing exploration of the world resulted in wild animals being captured and examined as both objects of curiosity and scientific specimens.
Birds of prey and night-birds appear in drawings as early as the fifteenth century and the fascination with these species continued into the nineteenth century. Interest in owls, in particular, was probably the result of their mythological and allegorical significance, representing the attribute of wisdom.
Artists were frequently employed to paint these prized possessions and among them was the painter Pancrace Bessa. He is primarily known for his botanical watercolors and great number of published illustrations, but also showed great facility in the representation of animals and birds. Born at Paris in 1772, Pancrace Bessa studied at the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle with both Gerard von Spaendonck and Pierre Joseph Redouté. He is considered one of the most talented painters of his day and was a regular exhibitor at the Paris Salons between 1806 and 1831. He is also known to have instructed the royal Duchesse de Berry in the art of painting and worked on the French royal collection of watercolors on vellum, known as the Velins du Roi, from 1823 until his death.
This finely executed work displays Bessa's remarkable talent as a painter. The expertly rendered detail is combined with an exceptional richness of color and texture to produce a beautiful and compelling work. He conveys the incredibly strength of the owl through the depiction of its mighty talons and yet gives a remarkable degree of movement to his subject as the owl appears startled and ready to take flight. Bessa's watercolor is both a technical tour de force and a highly engaging work of art.