ROBERT, Nicolas (1614-1685). Northern Bobwhite (Female). Gouache on vellum with gold fillet. c. 1670.
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 exquisite watercolor dates from Robert’s tenure in the court of Louis XIV. A particularly gifted miniaturist, the artist’s immaculate technique is perfectly suited to the northern bobwhite’s delicate form. In grand, swooping arcs, Robert traces the smooth roundness of the bird, dignifying its small stature among the tall blades of grass. Part of the New World quails, the northern bobwhite is native to eastern North America and features dappled plumage ideal for camouflage. Robert faithfully renders its brown, rufous, buff, and black coloring, and sharply articulates its feathers to draw out the bird’s latent beauty. The fallen cornflowers are used to complement the female’s buffy throat and eyebrow as their purples and blues grant the yellow a regal luminescence further heightened by the brilliant gold fillet frame.
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, Nicholas Marechal, 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. Paris, circa 1670.