Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of a young girl with a cockatoo 1690c.

Michael Dahl (1659-1743)

Portrait of a young girl with a cockatoo, Michael Dahl
Oil on canvas
17th Century
50 x 40 inches 127 x 101.2 cm
To view portraits by Michael Dahl for sale, please go to www.philipmould.com.

Michael Dahl's work has been described as particularly accomplished in the painting of children. This is not to deny the impressive effect of his adult portraits, which ensured him royal patronage and a career of half a century, but the child portraits form a uniformly successful group.

As in all successful portraits in the genre, the painter must be able to demonstrate, as he does here, a genuine sympathy with the character of children, and to portray them as more than miniature adults. Despite this conventional depiction of -in this case- a truly regal costume bedecked with pearls, we do not lose sight of a child stretching out with true infant curiosity -and imprudence- towards a magnificent cockatoo. The mood of the picture, therefore, is caught between the fantasy of aristocratic portraiture - a child in an imaginary costume playing in an imaginary garden- and what must have been the recognisable reality of someone's daughter playing with their pet cockatoo - which latter must have been as real as the girl, given the excellence of Jakob Bogdany's execution and his general practice in working from life.

As here, Dahl's characterisation of children can be distinguished by a pronounced forehead and large, expressive eyes. The treatment of the hair, which curls and crests at the top of the head is also typical. In the figure there is a considerable debt to ancient sculpture, which Dahl would have studied in Rome. The hard folds in which the legs are draped demonstrate this particularly, and it is probable that there is a direct sculptural source for this. The almost-metallic sheen of the girl's yellow dress is distinctive of Dahl's palette, and is an important balancing element as the eye moves from the darker tones of the left-hand-side of the canvas across towards the brilliant white of the cockatoo''s plumage.

This latter forms a significant element in the painting's mise-en-scene. The setting is that of country garden rather than an idealised landscape, and the large urn at the left is an appropriate ornament for a gentleman''s garden, as is the cockatoo itself, an exotic accessory, and an allusion to wealth. The cockatoo is not the work of Dahl, but is most probably a collaboration with the Hungarian artist, Jakob Bogdany. Bogdany came to England in 1688, the date of Dahl''s return from Europe, and he may well have known Dahl in Rome. The inclusion of the cockatoo in this portrait, and its particular accomplishment, may well help to date the portrait, as Bogdany's interest in avian subjects over his previous forte of still-life painting begins in the 1690s, reaching its apogée in c.1703, when he was commissioned by Admiral George Churchill to paint several large canvasses of the inhabitants of his aviary. Bogdany's bird paintings frequently include elements of classical architecture, and it is probable that the large urn in this portrait, painted with a particular attention to detail, may also be his work.

This particular fusion of the talents of two of the most accomplished artists of the English Baroque is a remarkable object, and would have been an expensive commission. It dates from what is probably Dahl's most successful period, when he enjoyed the favour of Queen Anne and Prince George of Denmark - whose patronage he had cultivated in the previous reign - and when ''the Great business and high carriage of Kneller gave a lustre to the workes of Mr Dahl - a man of great modesty and few words.''1

1. Vertue Notebooks III Walpole Society Vol. XXII 1933 - 1934 p.118
Philip Mould Ltd, 18-19 Pall Mall, London, SW1Y 5LU.Copyright Philip Mould Ltd.