ROBERT, Nicolas. (1614-1685) Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata). Gouache on vellum with gold fillet.
Nicolas Robert was one of the greatest natural history artists of the 17th century, and his work established standards combining scientific accuracy and esthetic appeal that influenced generations of artists and won the respect and patronage of the French royal family. Robert created a vast, exquisite body of work for the French Crown. Along with other artists, he was commissioned by Gaston d'Orléans, brother of Louis XIII, to create watercolors of rare plants and exotic birds assembled in the garden at Blois and the Versailles Ménagerie. Robert's talent was quickly recognized as superior to that of other artists working for the royal family, and after Gaston d'Orléans's death he was placed under the patronage of the Sun King, Louis XIV. As a reward for the stunning works he painted for the king's personal collection, Robert was named "Peintre Ordinaire du Roi" in 1666, a title that confirmed his continuing fame and royal patronage.
Robert’s incredible technical facility and exceptional knowledge of composition is on full display in this fine gouache-on-vellum rendering of the famous blue jay. The artist includes minimal peripheral details; only a walnut and a patch of rocky turf upon subtly modulated white ground serve to set the scene, leaving the bird’s exquisite plumage and noble stature to take center stage. Looking up from its meal, the bird is alert and curious, with its crest raised like a crown of cerulean feathers. The black bridle on the face and neck—a feature that varies significantly between individuals—is here composed in an elegant arc to accentuate the clear, dark eye and call attention to the bird’s keen intelligence. It is, however, the dazzling array of blues that makes this simple composition at once so harmoniously balanced and so absolutely striking. Rather than pigment, the blue jay’s brilliant coloring is the result of light interference, a phenomenon English scientists Robert Hooke and Isaac Newton were first discovering just as Robert, in France, was creating this superb work. With tremendous care and detail, the artist skillfully captures the great breadth of blues that bedeck the bird’s feathers, masterfully juxtaposing the sleek slate blue of its nape and upper back with the rich, celestial striations that lavish its wings and tail.
One of the greatest natural history artists of the 17th century, Robert was the first significant contributor to a collection of fine watercolors on vellum that became known, collectively, as the Velins du Roi (the King's Vellums). The watercolors Robert completed under Gaston d'Orléans and then Louis XIV for the royal collection fed the interest and provided the inspiration for the great masters of botanical and ornithological art who followed: Jean Joubert, Nicolas Maréchal, Gerard van Spaendonck and, of course, Pierre-Joseph Redouté. Thus the extremely fine print work of Parisian natural historians and flower painters as late as 1825 can be traced directly back to the strength of Robert's tradition.
Today the vast majority of Robert's watercolors are housed in public institutions, including the Musée d'Histoire Naturelle in Paris, the British Museum in London, and the Hofbibliothek in Vienna. This watercolor represents an unusual opportunity to obtain original, unique work by an extremely important and exceptionally talented artist. The brilliance that made the Sun King recognize Robert as the preeminent watercolorist of his day is indeed still evident in this pristine, charming work. 12 x 13 1/4 inches. Framed: 24 5/8 x 20 5/8 inches. Gouache on vellum with gold fillet.