Rather surprisingly, there are many paintings of women with parrots in the history of art, and several theories as to why this should be.
The parrot may be seen as the confidant of the woman. This seems unlikely, since the parrot, being able to repeat what it hears, would be liable to pass on any secret confided to it.
It may be seen as a symbol of women’s confinement, being in a cage itself: perhaps.
With their spectacularly coloured plumage and ability to mimic human speech, parrots have long held a place in man’s affections, and for centuries artists have accorded them diverse roles in their works. Since the Middle Ages, the parrot has represented the Virgin birth of Christ,
Jan van Eyck, The Madonna with Canon van der Paele, 1436, oil on panel, 122 x 157 cm, Groeningemuseum, Bruges, Belgium
or acted as an eye-witness to the Fall of Man.
Peter Paul Rubens, The Garden of Eden with the Fall of Man, c1617, oil on panel, 64 x 115 cm, Mauritshuis, The Hague, Netherlands
Albrecht Dürer, Adam and Eve, 1504, engraving, 25.1 x 20 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA
Colourful, tropical parrots were collectors’ items in Germany, and they were also symbols in art. The call of the parrot was believed to sound like “Eva-Ave” —Eve and Ave Maria. This word play is supposed to reinforce the Christian interpretation of the story of the Fall of Humanity by portraying the Virgin Mary, as the antidote for Eve’s sin in the Garden of Eden.
The parrot has also been celebrated as a domestic pet. In addition to making frequent appearances in still lifes and portraits, it sometimes impersonates or stands in for people, plays the role of a woman’s surrogate lover, or mocks and comments on the follies of human behaviour.
Nicolas de Largillierre, Portrait of a Woman, 1696, oil on canvas, 140 x 107 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Young Woman with a Parrot, 1760-1761, oil on canvas, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, UK
Eugène Delacroix, La Femme au perroquet, 1827, oil on canvas, 25 x 33 cm, Musée des Beaux Arts, Lyon, France
Edouard Manet, Femme au perroquet, 1866, oil on canvas, 185 x 129 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA
The model was Victorine Meurent, who also posed for Déjeuner sur l’herbe and Olympia.
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Femme à la perruche, 1871, oil on canvas, 92 x 65 cm, Guggenheim Museum, New York, NY, USA
Here, the model was Lise Tréhot, a favourite of Renoir.
Gustave Courbet, Femme au perroquet, 1866, oil on canvas, 130 x 196 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA
This was the first nude by Courbet to be accepted by the Paris Salon in 1866. While painted in a style to gain Academy acceptance in its pose and smooth flesh tones, the model’s discarded clothes and disheveled hair were controversial, although less so than Le Sommeil, painted the same year. Joanna Hiffernan probably posed for both paintings, as well as for James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl, 1862, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, USA
And, a couple from the twentieth century
Frida Kahlo, Yo y Mis Pericos, 1941, oil on canvas, Private Collection, New Orleans, LA, USA
Botero, Woman with Parrot, 1973