A young woman sits, one delicate hand outstretched and holding an almond to feed to a parrot. On one finger she has a thimble – she has stopped sewing to feed the bird, an African Grey that hunches over, assessing her gift with a beady eye. The model used for the young woman is thought to be Cunera van de Cock, who married Frans van Mieris in 1657.
Van Mieris was one of the most successful genre and portrait painters in the Dutch Republic at the time. This tiny, exquisite painting was one of the most successful he ever produced, being copied many times. The work is on copper, which makes his brushstrokes virtually invisible and allows him to achieve subtlety and realism in his portrayal of textures, from the rich fabrics of the young woman’s costume down to the detail of the braid on the back of her chair.
A young woman sits, one delicate hand outstretched and holding an almond to feed to a parrot. On one finger she has a thimble and on her knee is a piece of cloth and a needle pillow. She has stopped sewing to feed the bird that hunches over, assessing her gift. It’s an African Grey. Its feathers glisten, its beady eye suddenly caught by the nut.
The young woman is dressed in sumptuous clothes – a heavy, cream, satin skirt with a rose-pink velvet jacket edged with white fur. The skirt of the jacket fans out round her in deep folds, showing off the expensive trimming. Her fair hair is fashionably dressed, caught back with ribbon bows. Tendrils of hair tickle her forehead and rosy cheeks, and longer strands hang down to curl round her neck. She smiles slightly, with a distant look in her eyes as if her thoughts are elsewhere.
Van Mieris places the young woman in front of a bed, with an open door hung with a climbing plant to the left. They are barely visible now, but if more distinct, they would make an openly intimate setting for this tender portrait. Perhaps, though, the extremely dark background does more to set off the soft colours and subtle lighting than a more cluttered background would do, leaving the young woman more alone with her thoughts.
In some Dutch paintings of this period the parrot had erotic connotations, but probably not in this picture. The bird is also sometimes seen as a symbol of ‘eagerness to learn’ since parrots can be taught to speak human words and phrases. In a contemporary illustration in a book of advice on marriage, a woman representing ‘eagerness to learn’ is shown with an embroidery frame in one hand and a parrot perched on the other.
Van Mieris was one of the most successful genre and portrait painters in the Dutch Republic at the time. He was celebrated as a fijnschilder, one of the Leiden ’school of fine painting', his technique learnt from his teacher Gerrit Dou. This tiny, exquisite painting was one of the most successful that van Mieris ever produced. He made three versions of it himself and it was copied many times by others. The painting is on copper, which makes his brushstrokes virtually invisible and allows him to achieve subtlety and realism in his portrayal of textures, from the bird’s stiff feathers to the detail of the braid on the back of the young woman’s chair.
The model used for the young woman is thought to be Cunera van de Cock, who married Frans van Mieris in 1657. A proper portrait of her by Mieris, Portrait of the Artist’s Wife, Cunera van der Cock, shows an unmistakable likeness, though her plain clothes, veiled hair and serious expression show us a very different side to her character.
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