Jacques Barraband (French, 1767-1809), Claw and Beak of Toco Toucan

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Jacques Barraband (French, 1767-1809)
Claw and Beak of Toco Toucan
Watercolor & gouache on paper
Signed lower left: Barraband
ca. 1800
Paper size: app. 20 1/4 x 14 1/2 in
Frame size: 31 1/4 x 24 1/4 in

Although this watercolor resembles an explanatory illustration, its refinement is equally important. What can be said about this work of art in regard to the history of ornithology and scientific illustration? Unmistakable by its bill, these three parts all belong to the Toco toucan (Ramphastos toco), the largest and best-known species in the toucan family. Created by Jacques Barraband (1768-1809), the greatest bird illustrator of his time, this watercolor is depicted in the second volume of Histoire naturelle des oiseaux de paradis et des rolliers, suivie de celles des toucans et des barbus (1801-1806). This monograph is a part of the six series of exotic bird books that were accomplished by the explorer and ornithologist Francois Levaillant (1753-1824). A technique was used in these monographs by which copperplates were colored (à la poupée) and, after printing, hand-colored. The birds are depicted in such a beautifully rich way that these works are regarded as the pinnacle of intaglio printed bird illustrations.

It is not a coincidence that Levaillant chose this illustration to be the first one in the second volume of the monograph. The first chapter is fully devoted to toucans, where, as we shall see, he highlights the significant difference between toucans and hornbills. While both bird families share similar bizarre bill-to-body ratio, the Ramphastidae and Bucerotidae are nowhere near related to each other. All fourty-seven toucan species occur in the New World, specifically Central and South America. The hornbills inhabit the Old World, where approximately sixty species are spread across subtropical Africa, Asia and Melanesia. These big-billed birds are an example of ‘convergent evolution,’ non-related species that more or less resemble each other. The same can be observed with penguins, which live on the Southern Hemisphere, and auks, which live in the North. This phenomenon does not go unnoticed by Levaillant--the naturalist praises the harmony and uniformity of Mother Nature when observing the very particular parallelism between the bird families which are equally bizarre and live in corresponding hot regions. Nowadays we seem able to make a clear distinction between the families, but when the birds were first introduced to Europe toucans and hornbills, they were confused by early modern zoologists. During the seventeenth and the eighteenth century these animals, and especially their bills, were regarded as a curiosity. The origin of the specimen was often a mystery; trade routes from the East and West went mostly via West Africa, from where the cargo was shipped to Europe.

In this monograph Levaillant notably excludes illustrations of hornbills. This has two reasons. First, toucans were introduced in Europe decades before the hornbill, and therefore more species were known. The bird is initially described in 1526 by the Spanish naturalist Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés (1478-1557) in his Sumario de la natural y general historia de las Indias. For decades, the bird’s body was unknown to scholars, so only its bill with occasionally its head was depicted. It was not until 1599 when Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605) was the first to mention a hornbill; in his Ornithologiae a head of a rhinoceros hornbill (Buceros rhinoceros) can be seen. Secondly, the colorfulness of toucans exceeds that of hornbills and are arguably a perfect match for Levaillant’s luscious monographs on exotic birds.

In his introduction Levaillant emphasizes the importance of distinguishing between the two bird families. Just like the birds of paradise, illustrated in the previous volume, Levaillant sums up the prevailing misconceptions in natural history books and wishes to eradicate them by giving accurate and elaborate description through noting the physical differences between the species. He starts with the the toucan’s right leg (Pied du Toco) and points out an important distinction between the Ramphastidae and the majority of bird species:
“Les toucans ont les doigts disposés, deux par-devant, et deux par-derriere ; conformation toute différente de celle du pied des calaos. Les deux doigts de devant sont réunis ensemble à leur base jusqu’à la première articulation”.

Toucans have zygodactyl feet, meaning that they have two toes facing forward and two facing backward. This trait can also be found in woodpeckers, owls, cuckoos and parrots. It is the second most common toe arrangement. With toucans, the first joint of the toe is united together at the base to the first joint. Most birds, like songbirds and perching birds, have anisodactyl feet, meaning that they have three toes in front and one behind. This is also the case with hornbills. Since the outer two of the three front toes are partially joined, it is referred as syndacty. The position of the toes is an important indicator for the determination of bird species within certain families and orders; syndacty feet can also be found in kingfishers and rollers that, together with hornbills, are member of the suborder Coraciiformes. Levaillan further discusses the length and the type of scales on the foot, all these features are meticulously drawn by Barraband.

Even though toucan bills look massive and heavy, they are actually incredibly light in relation to the bird’s body weight, especially when compared with hornbills. To demonstrate this, Levaillant weighed the heads of the largest species of toucan and hornbill. The rhinoceros hornbill was four ounces, while those of the toco toucan weigh at most an ounce, even though the beak of the latter is not more than twice the volume of the hornbills’ bill. Although the respective body mass of these birds is about one to four, the toco toucan being a quarter of the weight of the rhinoceros hornbill, the toucan’s bills are more monstrous than those of hornbills. The latter ones are so heavy that they need to be supported by powerful neck muscles as well as by fused vertebrae. Hornbills are omnivorous--they use their strong bills for cutting into hollow trees to feed on larvae of beetles, while toucans are primarily frugivorous (fruit eating). Levaillant writes in great detail on the toco toucan’s bill, its external and internal qualities, to give the reader an insight into the ingenious anatomy of the animal. He explains how the keratin layer of the bill is very thin and conclusively not strong, and easily gives in when pressure is applied:

“ (…)de sorte que cette partie intérieure des mandibules des toucans n’est réellement composée que d’une enveloppe mince, diaphane, qui fléchit sous les doigts quand on la presse, et dont la concavité est seulement remplie par des réseaux très délicats, d’une substance osseuse, friable et cassante, qui, recouverte seulement d’une gaine cornée, fort mince, donne au bec une grande légèreté, sans laquelle ces oiseaux n’auraient sans doute pas eu la force d’en supporter le poids, attendu qu’ils ne sont pas eux-mêmes très gros.“
The inside of a toucans’ bill is filled by very delicate substance, composed of bone struts filled with spongy tissue of keratin between them. This light-weight construction is the most efficient in terms of strength/weight ratio, giving reason to its phenomenal size. This is in an intriguing way displayed in the watercolor; Barraband knows how to capture the gentle structure of the miraculous bill in a subtle and refined manner, thereby underlining the lightness of it.

The third and last body part is not easy to recognize but is distinctive of the toucan species. The Langue du Toco has the appearance of a feather, but, as Levaillant notes, it is actually a long tongue that is “frangée sur ses bords par de longues barbes qui imitent si bien une plume” to which many naturalists incorrectly stated that the toucan had a feather as tongue. Here, Levaillant points out the toucan’s difference with hornbills as the western counterparts have small, wet tongues.

Barraband’s watercolor is not simply an arrangement of exotic bird parts – it is the foundation of Levaillant’s monograph on toucans and highlights the unique characteristics of this bizarre bird species. In his introduction, Levaillant clarifies the similarities but foremost, the differences between the toucans and the hornbills, by giving in-depth descriptions about their physique, based on this particular work of art. Therefore, it is not only a beautiful, delicate natural historical illustration, intrinsic to all bird depictions in Levaillant’s Histoire Naturelle, as it also commits to expelling the prevailing misconceptions of the alleged relationship between toucans and hornbills, contributing in the development of ornithology as a scientific history.

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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