Jacques Barraband (French, 1767-1809), The Ivory-Billed Aracari – L’aracari Azara

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Jacques Barraband (French, 1767-1809)
The Ivory-Billed Aracari – L’aracari Azara
Watercolor and gouache over gum arabic
ca. 1800
Image size: approx. 20 1/2 x 15 in
Frame size: 30 1/10 x 24 4/5 in
Provenance: Collection of Marcel Jeanson

The last, grand monograph by the explorer and ornithologist François Levaillant (1753-1824) contains a beautiful collection of promerops, birds of paradise, bee-eaters, (wood) hoopoes, scimitarbills, trogons, and turacos. Published by Denné le Jeune between 1807 and 1816/18, it is the third and final part of the series known as Histoire naturelle des Oiseaux de Paradis; des Toucans et des Barbus; suivie de celle des Promérops, Guêpiers et des Couroucous! Levaillant primarily commissioned Jacques Barraband (1786-1809) for the illustrations within the collection. Barraband’s bird watercolors are considered masterpieces of French ornithological illustration. He was held to be one of the greatest bird illustrators of his time, impressing even Napoleon Bonaparte, who became his patron. Later, when Barraband could not provide more drawings (most likely due to health problems), Auguste Pelletier (1800-1847) became the illustrator. As of now, little is known about Auguste. His works of art are of such phenomenal quality and detail that they easily can be interchanged by Barraband’s (ill. 1). Auguste created the watercolors when he was approximately eighteen years old. Like Barraband, he died before turning fifty, making him relatively unknown.

This watercolor is a depiction of the Ivory-billed Aracari (Pteroglossus azara), a toucan species Auguste illustrated for this incredible monograph. The bird is featured in the last chapter of the monograph; a supplement devoted to newly discovered species that had not yet been illustrated.

The Ivory-billed Aracari is a member of the toucan family Ramphastidae, which contains over forty known species. Toucans are medium-sized birds, native to the rainforests of Central and South America and the Caribbean. They are known for their brightly marked plumage and large, often-colorful bills. One of the five genera in the toucan family is the Pteroglossus, also known as Aracaris. Most of the fifteen Aracari species look very similar. They have green tails and wings, a red rump, a blackish brown head, and a black, yellow and red banded breast and belly. Besides the Ivory-billed Aracari in the supplement, Levaillant describes six other Aracaris in the second volume, the first chapter being devoted to toucans. In his introduction, Levaillant makes an accurate distinction between the Aracari’s and other toucan genera, based on the work of his predecessor, Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707 –1788). According to Buffon, the name ‘Aracari’ was given to this toucan by the natives of Guiana, deriving it from the birds’s cry:

“L’observation que je me permets ici est d’autant plus fondée , que Buffon lui-même , en décrivant sa première espèce d’aracaris , sous le nom de grigri , dit très positivement qu’elle est ainsi appelée à la Guyane , parceque ce mot en exprime à-peu-près le cri aigu et bref.”

There are three subspecies of the Ivory-billed Aracari, the one illustrated by Auguste being the azara (Viellot, 1819). Unlike the other two subspecies, its lower mandible is completely ivory colored, just like the watercolor. The bird is named after the Spanish military officer, naturalist, and engineer Félix de Azara (1746-1821), who observed described over 400 birds on his expeditions in the Río de la Plata region. The Ivory-billed Aracari is found in Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela. It lives in subtropical or tropical moist lowland forests. Unlike other toucans, this species is very social. It forages alone, in pairs, or in small groups of up to five. They nest in tree holes, each laying 2–4 white eggs. The birds sleep with their young in the same tree hole, their large tails folded up over their backs. These birds have short wings and are primarily arboreal, distinctive characteristics for all toucans. The Aracari diet is mostly fruit-based, but they do eat insects and other small prey.

 

Jacques Barraband (french, 1767-1809)

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 Africa’s interest 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 reach 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 realistic images of exotic birds of all forms.

Barraband studied under Joseph Malaine and afterward worked as a draftsman in the Gobelin tapestry works. He painted porcelains 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. His work for Francois Levaillant was undoubtedly 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 a high order’s artistic ability with good taste and a rare aesthetic sense.

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