WOLF, Joseph (1820-1899). Merlin; Falco aesalon; Falco columbarius Linnaeus. Pencil and watercolor heightened with bodycolor, white heightening and gum arabic. c. 1862-73.
Sir Edwin Landseer described Joseph Wolf as "...without exception the best all-round animal painter who ever lived," and this remarkably finished study is a testament to why. Resisting categorization as a scientific illustrator, Wolf aimed to create complete, naturalistic compositions that conveyed a sense of drama and mystery while maintaining an exceptional eye for detail. Indeed, his knowledge about composition and keen scientific eye are what attracted the renowned British ornithologist John Gould to Wolf's work. The two men had a long, productive relationship, with Gould commissioning Wolf to produce several plates for his famous The Birds of Asia (1850-83) and The Birds of Great Britain (1862-73), for which this magnificent study was created.
In this striking work, Wolf depicts a pair of adult merlins in a typically rock-covered nest site moments after a skillful hunt. Grand diagonal lines from the male's outstretched wings and magnificent feathers imbue the scene with a sense of dynamism punctuated by the clear, fierce stare of his left eye and underlined by the female's slanted perch. The effect is heightened with continuities of color gently woven throughout, as with the bold white of the nestlings that builds upward to the ivory underside of the slain bird and the cream of the hunter's throat, breast, and the underwing; or the distinct russet coloring that completes the sweeping arc of his left wing through to the female's head and a few stray feathers that fall by her side.
Once referred to as the "pigeon-hawk" for its semblance to a pigeon in flight, the merlin's coloring, particularly the charming blue-grey pictured here, has an understated elegance that was well suited to Wolf's artistic interests. As his biographer Alfred Herbert Palmer points out, "he took much more pleasure in revealing the latent beauty, the gentle harmonies and gradations of some unobtrusive species, by means of the subtleties of his art, than in painting the members of the more gorgeous orders." Indeed, Wolf considered Gould ignorant about feather tracts and disliked what he considered the latter's tendency toward "vulgar" over-coloring, preferring instead more accurately delicate chromatic nuances, as with the gently mesmerizing patterning of the merlin's feathers highlighted here through a rhythmic application of luminous cream and charcoal grey.
The eager nestlings, masterpieces in themselves, are also exemplary in this regard. Each one is exquisitely articulated by subtle gradations of white on white, a notoriously difficult skill with a long history of studies devoted to its achievement in the French Salon. On top of a thin watercolor ground of variegated greys, Wolf carefully and skillfully builds texture and depth by using a fan or stipple brush to apply opaque white bodycolor and evoke the exquisite softness of their gossamer down. Thin, confident tracings curve to articulate the fragile beaks and provide dimensionality to their form, while the fewest possible striations are employed to suggest modulation in the wings. Later in life, the artist complained to his biographer that Gould had added too much color to many of his plates, and this study remains a unique indication of the delicacy of Wolf's conception. Study for John Gould The Birds of Great Britain, I, plate 19. Pencil and watercolor heightened with bodycolor, white heightening and gum arabic. Paper size: 21 x 14 1/2 inches.