Jacques Barraband (French, 1767-1809), Le Pignancoin, The Channel-Billed Toucan
Jacques Barraband (French, 1767-1809)
Le Pignancoin, The Channel-Billed Toucan
Watercolor and gouache on paper
Signed: Barraband fecit
Paris, ca. 1800
Paper size app. 20 1/2 x 15 1/4 in
Frame size 30 7/8 x 25 3/4 in
This watercolor is one of the eighteen toucans Barraband created for the dazzling monograph. We see here a life-size representation of the Channel-billed Toucan (Ramphastos vitellinus), and before we discuss how Barraband portrayed this exotic species, it is interesting to see on a scientific level how the toucan is studied and described by the author. Levaillant mentions two names of the bird. Le Pignancoin is its name given by the natives of Guiana as it is derived from the toucan’s cry. According to Levaillant, its current name Le Toucan à Gorge Jaune is incorrect since it describes the bird as having a yellow throat. Instead, it has white cheeks and throat that blends into a yellow-orange breast, an accurate observation by the ornithologist.
If we look at the other text and illustrations Histoire Naturelle, a couple of interesting scientific observations catch our eyes. The toucan family Ramphastidae includes five genera and over forty different species. They are native to the Neotropics, from Southern Mexico, through Central America, into South America south to northern Argentina. The genus with the biggest and most recognizable species is the Ramphastos. Eleven species within this genus are recognized and all have a black neck, wings, tail and underbelly. Most of them look very alike, except mainly for the color of the breast, skin around their eyes, rump and bill, which are predominantly brightly colored. Barraband illustrated eight of these Ramphastos in the monograph. Why these toucan species look so alike has two reasons. First of all, a very interesting phenomenon called mimicry is apparent in several toucan species. In evolutionary biology, mimicry is a similarity of one organism, usually an animal, to another that has evolved because the resemblance is selectively favored. A clear example of this mimicry can be seen between two large Ramphastos toucansr, the White-throated Toucan (Ramphastos tucanus) and our Channel-billed Toucan (R. vitellinus). It might be that the Channel-billed Toucan species evolves to mimic and deceive the White-throated Toucan, which is the dominant interference competitor, in order to avoid attack by this dominant species. The only major difference is their songs: the larger white-throated toucan is a “yelper” while the slightly smaller Channel-billed Toucan is a “croaker”. If they are not singing it can be very difficult to tell them apart, except by the bill proportions (the Channel-billed Toucan has a smaller bill relative to its head). Both toucans are apparent in Levaillants monograph (compare white-throated Toucan and relatives: pl. 3, 4,5 with Channel-billed Toucan and relatives: pl. 6,7,8). Levaillant makes a remarkable observation. He denotes that Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707 –1788), who’s Histoire naturelle was considered to be the greatest works on birds of his time, made an error in thinking that the birds are male and female counterparts, while they are actually very distinct species:
“Voici l’espèce de toucan que Buffon a confondu avec notre tocan , représenté planche 3 de ce volume, en considérant ce dernier comme la femelle du premier , et de telle sorte que la description qu’il en donne ne se trouve convenir ni à l’un ni à l’autre de ces deux oiseaux, qui bien certainement forment deux espèces très distinctes.”
This differentiating in species is a very keen observation of the ornithologist, and only possible because Levaillant had connections in Holland and Paris, and so was able to access many bird collections which allowed him to compare numerous specimen.
The second reason for the complexity of differentiating these toucans is because even though three species of the “croakers” can clearly be distinguished from another, hybrids and varieties occur due to overlapping habitats (ill. 2). Therefore, till this day there is an ongoing discussion if certain “croakers” should be considered as a separate species or subspecies of the same species . In the eighteenth century, they were often described as being one, but in the Histoire Naturelle, multiple toucans with yellow-orange breasts are illustrated (plate 5, 6, 7 and 8). Levaillant’s hypothesis was on point; according to the ornithologist, they are actually separate species, or at the very least subspecies with derivative chromatic variation of the Channel-billed Toucan, and interbreeding may produce misleading color schemes. Only because of the meticulous descriptions, comparisons, measuring and naming all aspects of the toucan, and because of Barraband’s highly detailed portraits of the birds, we can now identify the species and varieties in the watercolors. This is evident in the description of the Grand Toucan à gorge orange (pl. 5) where Levaillant compares the bird with our Channel-billed Toucan:
“Malgré les rapports qu’il y a entre cette espèce et celle du toucan gorge jaune de Cayenne, dont nous parlerons, je pense qu’ils ne doivent pas être confondus, et qu’ils forment, sinon deux espèces bien distinctes, au moins deux races constantes et permanentes dont chacune doit occupier une place séparée. (…) Je pense au reste , quelle que soit l’opinion des naturalistes , du public même à cet égard , qu’on ne me saura pas mauvais gré d’avoir donné ici la figure exacte d’un des plus beaux toucans connus, et qui, comparé à toutes les espèces qui s’en rapprochent le plus, offre une différence très marquée , qu’il n’étoit pas inutile de constater et de rapporter.”
If we look at how Barraband created the watercolor we see an incredibly beautiful and display a scientific accuracy few ornithological artists have been able to achieve. The meticulous hand-coloring displays delicate modulations of tone and color, fine lines, and perfect draftsmanship. Each feather has a depth, texture, and translucence, providing remarkable detail and naturalistic color. Indeed, the present work is exceptional in richness and tonal variation, as can be seen in the plumage in the cheeks, the smoothness of the bill, the richness of the orange-red breast and the structure on its feet. The velvety-soft feathers add to the bird’s resplendent air; magnificently rendered, their pushiness is evoked through the artist’s delicate brushwork and incredibly subtle gradations of color. Still, differences with this work of art and living toucans do occur. The issue Barraband and Levaillant had to contend with was the fact that the birds being studied were stuffed models. This explains why the bare, blue skin around the eye—so striking in the wilderness—is more subtly rendered in the image. When birds are mounted, these parts cannot be preserved or the colors tent to fade away rather quickly. Levaillant made an excellent observation in believing that the bare skin around the eyes is in fact blue, and therefore a bluish tint is visible in this watercolor.
Le Pignancoin is in all facets characteristic to Barraband’s works of art, particularly in his later period. The bird conveys energy as if it is well alive, with a detailing that is hard to match, in terms of artistic and scientific purposes. That Levaillant and Barraband were able to produce such a fine example of the magnificent Channel-billed Toucan is thus a testament to the ornithologist’s knowing eye and artist’s exceptional talent, as well as the brilliance of this historic collaboration.
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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