European School, Tawny Owl
Gouache on paper
Paper size: 18 3/4 x 13 1/2”
Frame size: 23 3/4 x 20 1/2"
The development of natural history painting paralleled advances in the field of science. Drawing played a leading role in disseminating knowledge throughout Europe and in many instances predominated over text. It presented an efficient means of recording scientific observations as the mysteries of the natural world began to unravel.
Birds of prey and night-birds appear in drawings as early as the fifteenth century and the fascination with these species continued into the nineteenth century. Interest in owls, in particular, was probably the result of their mythological and allegorical significance, representing wisdom when accompanying the Greek goddess Athene (or Roman Minerva), and as a symbol of evil when placed in pictures of the crucifixion.
In this engaging study the Tawny Owl is depicted. It is distinguished by its beautifully if subtly colored plumage varying from grayish to reddish brown and buff with black markings. As with other owl species, the size of the eyes and the forward-facing position enable it to gather as much light as possible and give it a certain degree of stereoscopic vision, allowing it to judge distance more accurately. However, hunting in almost totally black conditions is done as much by hearing as by sight and the owl moves its head constantly from side to side to enable it to build up an audio-visual picture of its surroundings, including the prey. It is a bird of almost silent flight, but remarkably vocal for it hisses in annoyance and snores.
The Tawny Owl is probably the best-known owl in Europe as a result of its uninhibited hooting at night making it a familiar bird among town-dwellers as well as inhabitants of the countryside. It is this species that Shakespeare referred to in 1589, writing, "Then nightly sings the staring owl, Tu-who: Tu-whit, tu-who -a merry note".
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