Frans van Mieris’s fame derives from his interior genre scenes depicting the daily affairs of wealthy Dutch citizens.1 Many of these paintings consist of two people interacting with each other in some idle fashion, but, as in this stunning painting, he also portrayed single figures relaxing within their domestic spheres. Here, within this darkened room,2 a richly dressed young woman with a fashionable hairstyle has just interrupted her needlework—a needle cushion is on her lap and a thimble is on one of her fingers—to feed the tame gray parrot sitting on one of the perches of a fine wooden stand.
Parrots were kept as pets in the seventeenth century, and Van Mieris depicted them on other occasions in his genre scenes.3 He may have painted this exotic bird, a Psittacus eritachus, for no other reason than to emphasize the luxurious surroundings.4 Notably, though, in images of the Virgin Mary and in marriage portraits, parrots often alluded to virtuousness or marital chastity. The parrot has also been interpreted as a symbol of eloquence and eagerness to learn, because the brightly colored bird can be tamed and taught to mimic speech.5 This, in any case, is the creature’s apparent role in a print in Jacob Cats’s Houwelyck (Marriage) from 1625, in which a woman represents “Leer-sucht” (eagerness to learn) with an embroidery frame and a squawking parrot on her hand (fig 1).6 The needlework of the woman in Van Mieris’s painting, which can be construed as an allusion to industry and virtue, similarly underscores the parrot’s symbolic meaning. The bird probably denotes the good upbringing of the woman, who bears a striking resemblance to the painter’s wife, Cunera van der Cock (see FM-107).7 A similar interpretation may be applied to other works that include this motif, such as the painting by Gabriel Metsu discussed below, in which a woman is shown still working on her needlework with the parrot perched on top of a cage.
This well-preserved masterpiece shows the artist’s marvelous technique to great advantage, for in this smoothly executed and precise image Van Mieris achieved a perfect rendering of textures. One is almost inclined to touch the painting and feel the fabric of the woman’s expensive clothes made of shimmering satin, velvet and fur. The sheen of light on the red velvet is handled as sharp white lines and veils of white. Van Mieris’s small scenes were not intended to be viewed from a distance, but even up close, the paint of the woman’s face is so finely blended that the artist’s brushstrokes remain invisible to the eye. In order to produce such a refined painting, Van Mieris must have applied layer after layer, in both the underpainting and in the final paint.8
The painting was formerly signed in full and dated “1663,” but the signature and date disappeared during a cleaning in 2009, a not uncommon phenomenon with Van Mieris’s paintings.9 An unsigned work in London (fig 2), painted on a copperplate and of slightly lesser quality, has traditionally been regarded as an autograph replica of this panel painting.10 After the two works were shown side by side in an exhibition at the National Gallery in London in 2010, however, subtle differences were noted in the way textures of materials were rendered, which seems to indicate that the London version was made by another painter working in Van Mieris’s studio.11 Little is known about how his studio was actually organized, so even the very question of whether Van Mieris made autograph replicas remains unresolved.12
The London painting and more than two dozen copies made after Young Woman Feeding a Parrot attest to the great popularity of this small masterpiece.13 The composition must also have made a great impact on fellow painters.14 Van Mieris’s famous teacher Gerrit Dou (1613–75), for example, depicted the subject of a woman with a parrot probably only after his pupil had finished the present painting (see GD-105).15 Van Mieris’s paintings also inspired many of his contemporaries, including Johannes Vermeer (1632–75) and Gabriel Metsu (1629–67). The latter artist’s Woman Sewing, with a Parrot (fig 3) is so similar to Young Woman Feeding a Parrot that it is very likely that Metsu tried to emulate Van Mieris’s work even as he translated Van Mieris’s painting technique into his own visual vocabulary.16
Young Woman Feeding a Parrot was formerly one of the highlights of the paintings collection of the Bavarian Electors.17 It had probably been acquired by Elector Maximilian II Emanuel of Bavaria (1662–1726). As of 1836, it was exhibited in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, the paintings by Van Mieris and other fijnschilders such as Gerrit Dou gradually fell from favor. Ironically, this rejection of their work was based on the same qualities that had attracted such admiration in the beginning, namely, their refined brushstrokes. In the nineteenth century, the view had gradually taken hold that a painter’s work must display his distinctive hand. The precise imitation of reality was seen less and less as an artistic virtue; on the contrary, it was considered a reprehensible “trick,” certainly after the advent of photography. With this shift, art was viewed and valued increasingly in terms of expression.
Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–69) and Frans Hals (1582/83–1666) became Dutch national symbols after their “rediscovery” by the French art critic Étienne-Joseph-Théophile Thoré (1807–69), who published under the pseudonym Willem Bürger.18 Their loosely painted works formed a major source of inspiration for impressionists and others, whereas the work of the fijnschilders lost its influence.19 In the 1920s and 1930s this reversal in appreciation eventually led some German museums to deaccession numerous works by the fijnschilders, including Young Woman Feeding a Parrot, which was sold in 1936. After World War II the painting entered the collection of Charles Dunlap of Philadelphia. When his widow sold the work at auction in 1975, the painting became part of the collection of Lord Harold Samuel (1912–87), who eventually bequeathed most of his collection to the City of London to be placed in Mansion House.20 Only a few paintings, including the present one, were not part of this bequest.21 In December 2008, Van Mieris’s masterpiece was sold at a public auction, and shortly thereafter it was acquired for the Leiden Collection.