The Rockox House Museum launches a focus exhibition on 8 November: The
Parrot: the decorative beauty of its plumage. The exhibition focuses on the
recently restored Peter Paul Rubens The Holy Family with Parrot painting
from the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp (KMSKA).
Rubens’ The Holy Family with Parrot was painstakingly restored between 2012 and 2014. The restoration gave the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp a unique chance to research the work and learn more about the fascinating genesis and technique of this master painter. The conservation work involved cleaning the painting and retouching paint damage to the Virgin Mary’s blue cloak. The painting has now been completely restored.
The restoration process provided the curators with an excellent opportunity to explore the use of parrots in fine art. The bird first appeared in decorative borders of medieval miniatures. Jan van Eyck was probably the first artist to prominently feature a parrot in a painting, such as in his masterpiece The Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele, housed in Bruges’s municipal museum (Groeningemuseum). Parrots were frequently pictured in paintings dating from the Renaissance and Baroque periods onwards, although these colourful birds rarely formed a centrepiece.
So, why the fascination? Cockatoos, lories, macaws and other such birds were introduced to Europe from faraway colonies from the 16th century onwards. They were a popular household pet, much loved and flaunted by royals, nobles and the rich. Parrots’ magnificent plumage was a feast for the eyes, but it was for their ability to mimic human speech that they were most prized. These remarkable qualities have ensured parrots their place in literature, fine art, philosophy and science. They are a symbol of beauty, transience and virginity, while also personifying love, lust, luxury and even lovers. Their prattling prowess has also made them symbols of wisdom, eloquence and sometimes
disrespectfulness in paintings.
Even Nicolaas Rockox couldn’t escape the parrot hype, commissioning a painting of his own art gallery from Frans Francken the Younger around 1630 that included a pair of parrots. In this context, our noisy feathered friends are something of a pest in that their feeding tray raises quite a bit of dust and dirt in the cabinet and disturbs the idyllic romance of the works hanging on the wall.
The Parrot: the decorative beauty of its plumage features 43 works, including paintings, prints, books and works of applied art like jewellery, biscuit porcelain, tiles and gilt leather. The pieces on display are by leading artists like Rubens, Savery, Fijt, Jordaens, de Heem, Dürer and Schongauer.
The joint Royal Museum of Fine Art Antwerp and Rockox House Museum exhibition,
The Golden Cabinet. Royal Museum at the Rockox House runs until the end of 2016. The next focus exhibition will be: Abraham Ortelius (1527-1598), under the spell of classical antiquity (18 April to 19 July 2015).