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Monday, December 12, 2011

Offering of the Day: An Original Ornithological Watercolor by One of the Personal Artists to Napoleon Bonaparte

Jacques Barraband (1767-1809)
Male South American Trogon (Togonidae SP)
Watercolor and gouache heightened with gold, over black chalk
Inscription in pencil upper right: Couroucous 20/1; also inscribed lower right.: N1
Paper size: 19 1/2 x 15 5/16 inches
Provenance: Marcel Jeanson (1885-1942), sale of his collection, Monaco, Sotheby's, 16 June 1988
Paris, ca. 1800
                               
Jacques Barraband's watercolors of birds are masterpieces of French ornithological illustration.  Most of his stunning portraits were done for the distinguished ornithologist Francois Levaillant, who commissioned the artist to illustrate his landmark works on African ornithology, including the lavish and striking Histoire Naturelle des Perroquets.  Images of African birds were popular in early 19th-century France both for their exoticism and for the interest in Africa that Napoleon's campaigns were generating.  The collaboration of Levaillant and Barraband represented a departure from previous ornithological texts in its emphasis on beauty and luxury, with sumptuously colored and flawlessly rendered birds. 

The project was a massive undertaking, which required over 300 finished watercolors. Apart from their undoubted beauty, they display a scientific accuracy that few ornithological artists have matched since.  Still, the meticulous hand-colored engravings in Levaillant's publications could not match the delicate modulations of tone and color, the fine lines and perfect draftsmanship of Barraband's original watercolors, which are exceptional in their richness and tonal variation.  Each feather is described by dozens of parallel lines, providing remarkable detail and naturalistically textured color. 

The key to Barraband's renown was his success as an illustrator of luxurious bird books.  In addition to illustrating Francois Levaillant’s Histoire naturelle des perroquets (1801-05), Barraband also executed the original watercolors for the ornithologist’s Histoire naturelle des oiseaux de paradis (Birds of Paradise, 1801-06).  These splendid watercolors demonstrate Barraband’s unparalleled ability to render splendidly naturalistic images of exotic birds of all forms.   

Barraband had studied under Joseph Malaine and afterwards worked as a draftsman in the Gobelin tapestry works.  He painted porcelains that were exhibited at the Paris Salons from 1798 through 1806, and records at Sevres show that he supplied drawings to the factory there in 1806.  He also decorated the dining-room in Napoleon's chateau at St. Cloud., but his work for Francois Levaillant was without doubt the climax of his career.  His drawings for Levaillant's splendid works placed him at the forefront of French ornithological artists at the beginning of the 19th century.  As these flawless watercolors demonstrate, Barraband combined artistic ability of a high order with good taste and a rare aesthetic sense.                                  

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