This painting is attributed to Roelandt Savery, (1576-1639), a Flemish born painter and printmaker who moved to Haarlem in the Netherlands. He worked successively for Henry IV in France, Rudolf II in Prague and the Emperor Mathias in Vienna. Savery spent time studying and painting the exotic animals from Rudolf II’s menagerie and incorporated these animals into many of his paintings. He produced several paintings of the dodo some of which are dated 1626 and 1628 and it is likely that this painting was completed sometime in the late 1620s.
The dodo is the main subject of this painting but other birds,
including ducks and a Macaw, together with frogs, lizards
and insects are also depicted. According to George Edwards
(1694-1773) who presented the painting to the British Museum
in 1759, it was painted “in Holland from the living
bird”. Savery died in Utrecht in 1639.
“Dead as a Dodo”. There is no ambiguity in this phrase; it is understood throughout the world as being totally and forever dead.
The Dodo was last encountered in the 1680s but by the early 1690s was extinct. In 1693 the French explorer, Francois Leguat, spent several months on the Mascarene Islands searching for it without success.
The bird inhabited the Island of Mauritius, one of three Islands making up the Mascarenes, located east of Madagascar, in the Indian Ocean. Portuguese sailors reached the Mascarene Islands in the early sixteenth century but made no record of encountering this flightless bird. The first narrative of the Dodo comes from a Dutch man named Jacob Cornelius van Neck, in 1599, but it was the botanist Carolus Clusius who gave the first scientific description of the bird in 1605. In less than a century of human contact the Dodo was extinct. Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), the famous naturalist called the bird (Didus ineptus) having been influenced by the Dutch sailors name for the bird of dodoor meaning sluggard. The current scientific name used by ornithologists is (Raphus cucullatues).
The Dodo is the first known extinction of a species as a result of human activity. Dutch sailors at first disliked the meat of the Dodo and called the bird Walgvogel, meaning nauseating bird. Nevertheless, the bird was hunted for its meat and for specimens to be brought back to Europe. This activity, however, was not the main cause of extinction. It was through the destruction of the forests and the introduction of animals such as the cat, pig and monkey to the island, which ate the eggs of the Dodo that sealed its fate.
Despite the abundance of the dodo on Mauritius during the seventeenth century, very little remains in museums as evidence of its existence. There are a few partial skeletons of the bird; a skull in Copenhagen, a beak in Prague, a foot at the Natural History Museum in London and a head and foot in Oxford. The one known complete stuffed bird was in the collection of John Tradescant who bequeathed it to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Here, the specimen was allowed to rot, so that by 1755 the directors of the Museum consigned it to the bonfire. It is thanks to the dedication of one curator from the Ashmolean Museum that the head and foot were saved and these are now in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.
Under normal circumstances a historical drawing of a species
can be useful in helping to identify, and add to our knowledge
and understanding of that species. For an extinct species
and in light of the very few remains of the Dodo that exist,
this painting is of critical importance. There are less than
a handful of paintings and drawings of the Dodo from the seventeenth
century so this painting held in the Natural History Museum
is of particular significance.
Presented to the British Museum by George Edwards in 1759, having previously been in the collection of Sir Hans Sloane.
This painting has not been on public display.
Thackray, J. C. A. (1995) A catalogue of portraits, paintings
and sculpture at the Natural History Museum London. Mansell:
Edwards, G. (1760) Gleanings of Natural History, Vol.2, p.180
Gould, S. J. (1998) The Dodo in the Caucus Race, In: Leonardo’s Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms. Harmony Books: New York. 422pp.
Owen, R. (1866) Memoir on the Dodo (<Didus ineptus>, Linn.). London. 55pp.
Strickland, H. E. (1848) The Dodo and its kindred: or
the history, affinities and osteology of the Dodo, Solitaire,
and other extinct Birds of the Islands Mauritius, Rodriguez
and Bourbon. London. 141p.