Bird-Songs in Pictures

MAY it not have occurred to many observers of nature that while the cow, the horse, sheep, and even goats, are frequently used by landscape painters as a part of the decorative plan of their pictures, or to add to the pastoral sentiment, the bird, which so enlivens the natural scene and lends to it the charm of color and song does not appear?

I confess that to me much of the delight of an early morning landscape of Corot or Claude Monet is due in no small measure to the music of singing birds. Though not one is to be seen, I am sure they are there.

There is a story told of Corot that he was once painting in a wood, while near him sat another painter whose creed was to record things in nature just as they are. Coming over to the easel of Père Corot, he said, —

‘Why, you are not painting this scene at all as it really is. You have left out that large rock yonder and put in a birch tree — there is no such tree to be seen.’

With a confiding smile, Corot replied, ‘If you’ll not say anything about it, I will tell you why I put in that birch. It was to please the birds.’

Charming as the story is, it is not needed to show the discerning person that the songs of morning birds must have been a large part of the artist’s delight in dewy fields and shadowy woods.

Beauty born of murmuring sound had passed into the face of Wordsworth’s Lucy, and it may not be a too great stretch of the fancy to believe that the singing of birds has put joy into the heart of many a painter, and has become ‘a portion of the loveliness ’ of his picture.

To be a lover of nature is to be a lover of birds. They are singing through all poetry from Chaucer down. When the woods are silent ‘and no birds sing,’ do we not feel that a large measure of our enjoyment has departed? In the pictures of nature which the artist makes for our pleasure there must somewhere be birds. Though we do not see them, their ‘unheard melodies’ will be heard by those who listen aright.

The cow, which has figured so largely in modern landscapes, has the advantage over the bird of mere bulk. The same may be said of sheep in flocks, which have become somewhat tiresome in the pictures of the Dutch Mauve and Ter Meulen. Reversing the old guide to the behavior of children, the bird must be heard but not seen. The brilliance of the tanager flashing across the green of deep woods, the pale rose of the grosbeak, the bold red and black of the little redstart, all must vanish in the large scale on which objects are made to appear in the picture, while the serene heifer, ‘far heard,’ remains a visible and tangible contribution to the composition. And yet, who does not believe that the plumage and song of the birds, together with their engaging movements, have brought more joy to the painter?

Still, it is sometimes not an unalloyed joy, as this little story which William Morris Hunt used to relate, will show.

Several young painters, Hunt among them, were hard at work on a warm spring morning in the forest near Barbizon. Under a large beech sat one ‘Dicky’ Hearn, struggling and perspiring under the difficulties of rendering the scene before him. A bird alighted on a branch above and poured forth a glorious song in ‘full-throated ease.’ Hearn laid down his palette and brushes, and looking admiringly at the bird, remarked, —

‘Oh, it’s easy enough for you to sing, but I’d have you to know that painting is a blamed hard thing to do.’