ROBERT, Nicolas (1614-1685). King Vulture (Paris, c. 1670). Watercolor 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.
This remarkable rendering of the exotic king vulture was probably executed for noble patrons during the artist’s tenure in the court of Louis XIV. Perched atop a fallen tree trunk, Robert positions the bird in a ¾ turn away from the viewer to suggest its imposing grandeur as one of the world’s largest scavengers, as well as to display the striking juxtaposition of rich ebony and rose gold-tinted white that characterizes its sumptuous plumage. Unlike other vultures, the king vulture is tremendously colorful, and Robert renders the head in perfect profile to display the vibrant array of vivid orange, yellow, red, and purple that adorns its featherless head and neck, as well as the piercing eye formed of concentric circles in black, white, and red. The work is a tour de force of textures as Robert is able to capture even the finest of details through his impeccable brushwork, from the short, wiry hairs of the head to the long, sinewy lines of the tail feathers and the thick, rugged bark of the tree. Found between Mexico and Argentina, the king vulture is highly independent, a characteristic Robert knowingly captures through its solitary stance, granting the august bird a noble composure befitting its regal name.
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 dazzling work.
Size: 15 ¾ x 11 inches; framed: 20 ½ x 24 ¾ inches. Watercolor on vellum with gold fillet. Paris, circa 1670.