TRAVIES, Edouard (1809-c. 1876). Eurasian Eagle-Owl (Le Grand Duc) (1869). Watercolor with black chalk.
The work of Edouard Traviès—the French “Audubon”—represents a pinnacle in French ornithological illustration, and his Eurasian Eagle-Owl is a major work of nineteenth-century ornithological art. His images of birds are considered to be among the finest ever produced, and original works such as this one are exceedingly rare. Traviès’s work is so highly valued for the remarkable aesthetic sensibility, scientific accuracy, and attention to holistic detail (both compositionally and ecologically) he was able to attain while granting his subjects a striking sense of character and individual charm, a unique combination rarely achieved in the portrayal of natural history as a pursuit bent on detail and scientific accuracy. This superb watercolor of the Eurasian eagle-owl—whose population numbers are now roughly half that of its American counterpart, the great horned owl—is a testament to Traviès’s incredible skill and artistry as he masterfully captures the magnificence of this fierce predator reigning supreme over the vastness of its domain.
Traviès had visited this subject a decade earlier in his iconic Les Oiseaux Les Plus Remarquables Par Leurs Formes et Leurs Couleurs, published in Paris and London ca. 1857. This extremely rare and highly prized ornithological text promised to represent the most remarkable birds in “varied scenes of their mores and habits” and contained 79 lithographed plates originally issued in serial form without title or text. Intent on creating complete representations, the artist had rendered the backgrounds fully, incorporating foliage, flowers, butterflies, and architectural features, as well as incidental details such as dogs or figures hunting. However, the eagle-owl’s great size (it is one of the largest living species of owl) and preference for remote variegated habitats among rocky, mountainous regions, coniferous forests, or steppes, and ranging across essentially all climates and environments on the Eurasian continent, seems to have posed a particular problem for Traviès, who, in his earlier attempt, placed the owl in somewhat awkward isolation relative to its surroundings. The particular compositional problem of rightfully rendering the large predator seems to have remained with the artist for 12 years after Les Oiseaux’s publication, until the masterful solution articulated in the present work.
In this brilliantly composed watercolor, the artist creates a harmonious balance between his subject’s striking features and the majestic landscape it calls home. The composition poignantly turns on the eagle-owl’s intimidating orange eyes which Traviès captures with remarkable depth and beauty through careful modulations of color and tone. The distinctive ear tufts, extending upward like a crown, bring a sense of nobility to the bird and point to its aristocratic French name, “Le Grand Duc.” The eagle-owl is, nevertheless, a fierce predator, and Traviès knowingly articulates its strong, deadly talons clenched tight around a cliff-laden perch typical of the song posts used to mark its territory. In striking contrast, the bird’s feathers are extremely soft to keep it warm in a variety of climates; along with short, broad wings, this velvety plumage allows the bird to silently and agilely descend upon its prey. The artist evokes this texture by allowing the white ground to come through and deftly handling his materials, mixing subtly variegated watercolors in browns and tawny buff with sparse, swift lines of black chalk to create dimensionality in the owl’s plumage and add definition to its bold patterning. The animal’s regal grandeur is matched only by the expansive and rocky mountainous landscape that occupies the bottom third of the picture space, while the soft gradations of blues and pinks cast by a sun hovering on the horizon bring balance and poignancy to the vibrant orange of its eyes. A magnificent study in contrasts, Traviès’s representation of the Eurasian eagle-owl is a poetic, unparalleled depiction of a truly glorious animal.
Edouard Traviès was born in Doullens, in the Somme district of France, in March 1809. His brother was the caricaturist Charles Joseph Traviès de Villier (1804-1859). Throughout his career he concentrated on natural history subjects in lithography and watercolor, exhibiting regularly at the Paris Salon between 1831 and 1866. His depictions of birds are particularly celebrated, and in his writings the impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir, his contemporary’s especial legacy among decorative artists, for whom Traviès’s aesthetically beautiful and scientifically accurate ornithological works became a primary source of reference.
Watercolor with black chalk. Signed lower left: “Edouard Traviès, peinture term., le 20 Mars, 1869.” Size: 20 x 16 inches; framed: 30 ½ x 26 ½ inches.