Mme Knip and Her Bird Book

Nicobar Pigeon by Pauline Knip
Nicobar Pigeon by Pauline Knip

Not every cause remains célèbre, but birders still recall, more than two centuries on, the noisy falling out between Coenraad Jacob Temminck and Pauline Knip, erstwhile collaborators on one of the loveliest of the illustrated bird books of the early nineteenth century.

Antoinette-Pauline-Jacqueline Rifer de Courcelles was born in Paris in July 1781; her marriage to the landscape painter Joseph Knip (he alone rates a Wikipedia article, by the way) ended in divorce, but she kept his name until her death in April 1851. A student of Pierre-Paul Barraband, Mme Knip specialized, like so many of her gifted female contemporaries, in scientific illustration, but, as a later biographer observed,

One has nevertheless encountered true artists in that inferior genre, to which they gave unexpected worth thanks to the genuineness of their exceptional talents. Mme de Courcelles, for example, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, while drawing and painting only birds, still managed to deserve a distinguished place among the artists of her day…. Even if one had no interest whatsoever in ornithology, no one could regret the time spent leafing through her splendid volumes.

In 1805, the artist provided the plates for Desmarest’s Histoire naturelle des tangaras, des manakins et des todiers, and three years later, she and Temminck began the publication of their Pigeons.

These pigeons, from our turtle doves and wood pigeons to the singular species of the tropics, they coo, they puff with pride; their wings life, their delicate and changeable colors shimmer in the sun; ingenious touches make the air and the light play among their silky plumes; their round eyes, even in the brute immovability, have the brightness and transparency of life…. Nothing better has ever been done in this genre.

It is not for her artistic skill that she is remembered, however. Elliott Coues tells the storyLes pigeons 

is one of the curiosities of literature…. The work was originally published in 15 livraisons, 1808-1811. At the ninth livraison, Madame Knip accomplished a piece of truly feminine finesse, by which she stole it from Temminck.

Knip intervened with the printer to change the cover of that ninth fascicle to make it seem that she was alone the author; apparently, to conceal her treachery, some copies were produced and sent to Temminck with his name on the title page. When the fifteenth was issued, though, she informed the binders that they were to omit all mention of Temminck, including the introduction and index he had written, “a bold trick, regardless of consequences,” says Coues.

What may have gone on under the surface would doubtless be even more curious….

Temminck himself identifies Knip’s motive:

The work she had thus mutilated was presented to her imperial highness Marie Louise, with the effect of gaining for Mme Knip the gratifying results her ambition had long coveted.

Only when he visited Paris from Leiden did Temminck find out what had happened. It was too late:

Every effort made to appeal against her arbitrary actions was useless, and it was not possible to raise my voice then against intrigues supported by such powerful protectors [namely, Napoleon and his second empress]; editors refused to publish my side in their papers, even in reply to an article published by [Mme Knip as] the new author.

I haven’t seen that article of Knip’s. Coues could not find it, either, and it is unmentioned in the most recent scholarship on l’affaire Knip and Temminck; it likely tells the story from a very different angle, one no doubt more sympathetic to the painter than the past two centuries of history and “delightful … gossip” have been.


Pictures of Pigeons

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Remember how hard it used to be to gather image material for study or publication?

No, you probably don’t. I can barely recall those days of drudgery and trudgery myself, all that time in the library and on the telephone and at the post office. Now, it’s all (or much, with more every day) out there just a click away — a circumstance that keeps me wondering why on earth, in this year of sad commemoration, we haven’t assembled more of the pictorial record of the passenger pigeon.

Even Joel Greenberg’s now canonical Feathered Riverwhich offers a good selection of images — not a few of them new to me — is limited by the constraints of print to scattered black and white photographs and a single sixteen-page gathering of color plates. Maybe Pinterest is the way to go after all.

In any event, here are a few of the many images produced over the years and the centuries; critical remarks on some of them are offered in Schorger’s “Evaluation of Illustrations,” Chapter 16 in his Passenger Pigeon. I’ve forborne from posting the well-known plates by Wilson, Audubon, Fuertes, and Hayashi, all of which are widely and conveniently available.

I make an exception for Mark Catesby, as many of the images credited on line and in print to his Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands are in fact from Seligmann. Here is the real thing, thanks to the Smithsonian Libraries and (again and again) BHL:

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According to Schorger, Catesby’s painting was preceded some thirteen years earlier, “about 1700,” by the first European drawing of the species, in the Codex canadensis now attributed to the Jesuit missionary Louis Nicolas.

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The text reads, in translation,

Oumimi, or ourité, or dove. One sees such great numbers of this bird at the first passage in spring and fall that it is incredible unless seen.

(Incidentally, Nicolas’s other work, the Histoire naturelle des Indes occidentales, which appears to be known almost exclusively to botanists, includes an entire chapter on the passenger pigeon, unmentioned, if rightly I remember, in Schorger and in Greenberg.)

Thomas Pennant’s Arctic Zoology poses a passenger pigeon alongside its smaller cousin, the mourning dove:

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Mathurin Brisson rightly praised Johann Leonhard Frisch’s plate in the Vorstellung as “icon accurata”:

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He could also have mentioned that it is one of the loveliest depictions of the bird ever published, a distinction that separates it vastly from the raggedy pigeon shown in Forster’s translation of Kalm’s Travels:

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Surprisingly, E. Lear (I assume that E. Lear) was hardly more successful in the pigeon he drew for Prideaux John Selby’s Pigeons.

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I can’t say that the figure in the Planches enluminées is too much better.

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Eyton gets it closer to right in his History of Rarer British Birds.

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William Pope painted his bird in 1835.

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From earlier in the nineteenth century, the notorious Pauline Knip’s pigeon pair is decorative, but both birds are too obviously dead and stuffed for my taste.

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Both sexes are also shown in De Kay’s Zoology of New York:

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Henry Leonard Meyer’s colored portrait, almost two hundred years old now, has an orientalizing lightness to it that still appeals to my twenty-first-century eyes (Schorger, a sterner critic than I am, says “no merit as to drawing and coloring”).

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Copied and imitated and plagiarized again and again, the appealing woodcut in Thomas Nuttall’s Manual seems familiar even to eyes that have never seen it.

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It is not clear to me just who is responsible for the plate in Morris’s History of British Birds, whether Alexander Lydon or another painter; in any event, this is not a work many artists would rush to claim.

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Still, it’s better than the infamous image of half a dozen shockingly colorful, big-footed birds in Studer:

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I prefer the justifiably wary birds in the background of this plate from the same work:

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Published in the same year as the death of the last pigeon, Bruce Horsfall’s bird looks a bit too much like a mourning dove, I think.

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The passenger pigeon survived, at least in dribs and drabs, well into the age of photography. Martha, the last known individual of the species, may have been the most pictured of all individual American birds before the invention of the digital camera.

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One of the last photographs of the dead Martha, taken by Robert Shufeldt while the corpse was still intact:

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The shutters didn’t stop clicking here. Sometime between now and September, I’ll post some of the published photographs of the dissection — memento mori.

Meanwhile, are there interesting and useful images I’ve missed?



Airmail from Canada

I can’t claim to have read (or to want to read) all of the vast literature on the Passenger Pigeon and its decline, but I’ve perused enough to know that it is all much of a sameness, fact after repeated fact piling up into a story that is more and more familiar as this sad commemorative year goes on.

I’ve come to be more interested in — and sometimes more charmed by — those texts where pigeons and their habits and history are not the central subject, but rather where the birds flutter around the edges, as it were.

On May 6, 1721, the Jesuit explorer and historian Pierre François Xavier de Charlevoix found himself becalmed at Quebec’s ominously named Anse de la Famine, “the worst place in the world,” as he called it. To pass the time, he caught up on his “historical journal,” composed (or at least published) as a series of letters addressed to the Duchess of Lesdiguières.

“This contrary wind,” he wrote,

gives every impression of lingering for a while and of keeping me here in the worst place in the world for more than a day. I will overcome the annoyance by writing to you. Whole armies are passing without pause of those pigeons that we call turtles; if only one of those would take up my letters, then you might learn some of my news before I leave this place: but the natives have not figured out how to train the birds to that occupation, as they say the Arabs and many other peoples did long ago.

Charlevoix’s scientific, factual report on the birds is well known and widely reproduced — and apart from its early date, just a few years after Catesby, doesn’t really add much to what we know: the flocks once darkened the skies, they’re easy to shoot from the trees, they are kept and fattened to be killed and dressed in autumn.

But doesn’t the image of the homesick writer, looking longingly out the window and hoping that the wind will change — doesn’t that passage tell us more about the way the pigeon was experienced and what the pigeon meant than a whole sheaf of life history details? I think so.


The Degenerate Dove

The Count de Buffon died 226 years ago today, making this as good a day as any to see what he had to say about what was over his long lifetime the most abundant bird in North America, the Passenger Pigeon.

In the Histoire naturelle des oiseaux, Buffon dedicates an entire chapter to “Exotic Birds Related to the Pigeon.” The natural historian wastes no time in proclaiming his theory:

There are few species as widespread as the pigeon; as it has strong wings and the capacity for sustained flight, it can easily make long voyages: and most of the races, wild or domestic, are found in all climates; from Egypt to Norway, people raise pigeons in aviaries, and while they do thrive better in hot climates, they do not fail to prosper in colder regions, too, depending on the care given them, all of which proves that this species in general fears neither heat nor cold, and the Rock Pigeon is found in almost all the countries on both continents [Europe and America].

As usual, it is not at first clear just what Buffon means in speaking of “species” and “races,” but he removes all doubt in the accounts that follow. Doves from Mexico, Guyana, and the Far East are here identified as “belonging to the espèce of our European Rock Pigeon.” Unable to resist the poke at his contemporary and competitor, Buffon dismisses Mathurin Brisson’s Violet Pigeon of Martinique as “a very slight variation on our common pigeon.”

And the same, he writes, obtains in the case of

the pigeon of America given by Catesby under the name Passenger Pigeon and by Frisch under the name Columba Americana, which differs from our feral pigeons only in its colors and in the longer feathers of the tail, which makes it seem to resemble our Turtle Dove. But those differences do not seem to us sufficient to make of this bird a distinct species separate from that of our pigeons.

Nowadays, if most people know anything about Buffon, it is his bizarre insistence that “foreign” organisms were the “degenerate” derivatives of European species — which were after, all, the real species. In this year of sad commemoration, it surprises me that no one has pointed out the good Count’s disparagement of the Passenger Pigeon — and the hint, d’outre-tombe, that we could recover that long-lost bird simply by selectively breeding feral pigeons for long tails and subtle colors.



A Passenger Pigeon from the Collection of Elliott Coues

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In his Birds of the Northwest of 1874, Elliott Coues recalled that

Some years since a great flight of Pigeons occurred near Washington, where for several days, in the fall, the woods were filled with the birds…. I once killed a specimen so newly from the nest as to cause me to believe that it had been hatched in the vicinity.

Coues does not tell his reader where that specimen ended up, but I think I know.

Photograph courtesy of National Museums Liverpool, Zoology, World Museum.
Photograph courtesy of National Museums Liverpool, Zoology, World Museum.

Coues collected this fresh juvenile Passenger Pigeon, aged by the “white crescentic edges of the feathers, especially on back and wings,” at the Old Soldiers’ Home in Washington on October 14, 1859. A quarter of a century later, Coues and his old field companion Webster Prentiss would recall that autumn as “the last large flight we remember” in the area.

The skin bore the number 450 in Coues’s personal cabinet, but somehow made its way into the famously vast collections of H.B. Tristram, where it was assigned the label 17066. It is not clear when Tristram acquired the skin, as the specimen is not identifiably listed in his 1889 Catalogue.

Tristram’s collection was purchased by the Liverpool Museum in 1896, and Coues’s pigeon resides there still.

Photograph courtesy of National Museums Liverpool, Zoology, World Museum.
Photograph courtesy of National Museums Liverpool, Zoology, World Museum.