Photo Essays

Strutting Between the Gorgeous and the Absurd

"A Peacock, a Parrot and other exotic birds in a park landscape," (1694) by Herman Henstenburgh (Courtesy of Arader Galleries, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)
Herman Xenstenburgh, “A Peacock, a Parrot and other exotic birds in a park landscape,” (1694) (Courtesy of Arader Galleries, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, all images courtesy Hudson River Museum)

There’s something almost campy about a peacock. When it gets angry, the male bird’s plumes prickle up like a fan, and it lets out an unpleasant, guttural screech. Evidence that good looks often trump substance, it has endured as a symbol of sexuality, pride, and power for thousands of years, surfacing everywhere from the jeweled throne of India’s Mughal emperors to NBC’s “in living color” logo.

Strut: The Peacock and Beauty in Art, currently on view at the Hudson River Museum in New York, is the art world’s first self-described “scholarly survey” of the bird. Though the peacock belongs to the same family as the pheasant and turkey, the show’s catalogue calls it “transgressive.” Museum director Michael Botwinick writes, “Like the giraffe’s neck and the elephant’s trunk, the peacock’s tail is both triumph and folly of form. The modish bird proudly struts the fine line we draw between the gorgeous and the absurd … ”

A peacock depicted in Pieter Bruegel the Elder's representation of Pride in The Seven Deadly Sins series (1558) (via Wikipedia)
A peacock depicted in Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s representation of Pride in The Seven Deadly Sins series (1558) (via Wikipedia)

This ostentatious beauty illicits different responses from different people. The show’s 150 objects include paintings, decorative objects (like lamps and porcelains), and even costumes that reveal the varying, often conflicting ways peacocks have been understood through time. In India, where they originate, they’re connected with worldly dominion; in China, they confer status. Early Christians linked their regenerative feathers to resurrection and immortality. And while Pieter Brueghel associated them with vainglory in his engraving “The Seven Deadly Sins: Pride” (1558), his own son Jan Brueghel I, in a work he created with Peter Paul Rubens, highlighted their visual beauty in “The Five Senses, Allegory of Sight” (1617).

Jan Brueghel I & Peter Paul Rubens - Sight (Museo del Prado)" by Jan Brueghel the Elder - Museo del Prado, Madrid. (Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
Jan Brueghel I & Peter Paul Rubens, “Allegory of Sight” (1617), Museo del Prado, Madrid. (Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

During the Gilded Age of the late 19th century, the bird’s beauty became something to appropriate. The peacock feather appeared everywhere from magazine advertisements and book covers to wallpaper and stained glass. It was so popular by the 1920s that artist Jesse Botke devoted his career almost exlusively to painting the bird. And though its popularity briefly waned during the Great Depression, it has continued to draw the attention of artists like Dillon Lundeen and Irena Kenny, who are drawn to its striking design.

Take a look.

"Untitled Peacocks (Fighting Males)," (2014) by Dillon Lundeen Goldschlag (Collection of the artist)
Dillon Lundeen Goldschlag, “Untitled Peacocks (Fighting Males)” (2014) (Collection of artist)
"Sweet Reflections," (1886) by Gabriel Schachinger (Collection of the Woodmere Art Museum, Bequest of Charles Knox Smith)
Gabriel Schachinger, “Sweet Reflections,” (1886) (Collection of the Woodmere Art Museum, Bequest of Charles Knox Smith)
"Captain Nemo" by Newell Convers Wyeth (Illustration for The Mysterious Island, by Jules Verne,  New York: Scribner’s, 1918 The Andrew and Betsy Wyeth Collection)
Newell Convers Wyeth, “Captain Nemo” (Illustration for The Mysterious Island, by Jules Verne, New York: Scribner’s, 1918, The Andrew and Betsy Wyeth Collection)
"Albino Peacock and Two Cockatoo," (c. 1930) by Jesse Arms Botke (Collection of Deborah E. Maloy)
Jesse Arms Botke, “Albino Peacock and Two Cockatoo,” (c.1930) (Collection of Deborah E. Maloy)
"Bengal Tiger and Peacock," (1928) by Charles R. Knight (Courtesy of Rhoda Knight Kalt)
Charles R. Knight, “Bengal Tiger and Peacock,” (1928) (Courtesy of Rhoda Knight Kalt)
"Peacock and Cobra," (2013) by James Prosek (b. 1975 (Courtesy of the artist and Schwartz-Wajahat, New York)
James Prosek, “Peacock and Cobra,” (2013) (Courtesy of the artist and Schwartz-Wajahat, New York)
"Wound Up," (2014) by Irena Kenny (Collection of the artist)
Irene Kenny, “Wound Up,” (2014) (Collection of the artist)
"sing something here," (2014) by Brian Keith (Courtesy of Diane Birdsall Gallery, Old Lyme, Connecticut)
Brian Keith, “sing something here,” (2014) (Courtesy of Diane Birdsall Gallery, Old Lyme, Connecticut)
"Pavo," (2014) by Darren Waterston (Courtesy of the artist and DC Moore Gallery, New York, New York)
Darren Waterston, “Pavo,” (2014) (Courtesy of the artist and DC Moore Gallery, New York, New York)

Strut: The Peacock and Beauty in Art, is on view at the Hudson River Museum (511 Warburton Avenue, Yonkers, New York) until January 18.

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