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Masterpiece of the Month: Frans Snyders, Concert of Birds (1620-30)

Frans Snyders, Concert of Birds (1620-30), oil on canvas, 135x175cm

About Masterpiece of the Month

In the build-up to the 150th anniversary exhibition of Iziko’s Art Collections, which will open on 24 September this year, distinguished UCT art historian Anna Tietze is presenting an essay each month shining some light on an artwork of her choice from the gallery’s historical collection.

Anna Tietze is the author of A History of the Iziko South African National Gallery: Reflections on Art and National Identity (UCT Press, 2017).


This mysterious work forms part of The Michaelis Collection, a collection of nearly 70 Dutch and (some) Flemish seventeenth-century paintings that opened to the public in the Old Town House, Cape Town, in 1916. The collection was presented by the German-born businessman Max Michaelis as a gift to the newly unified South Africa. Michaelis had made his wealth from the goldmines of the Rand and was keen to dedicate some of it to improving the cultural resources of South Africa.  However, while Michaelis provided the funds for the works that make up this collection, he did not choose them. This was done by the Irish art dealer and collector Hugh Lane, who had already played a major part in selecting the founding collection of the Johannesburg Art Gallery.

This large collection was not the only Michaelis gift to South Africa. Before this presentation he had already given funds to the fledgling Johannesburg Art Gallery and had donated an art library to the city of Johannesburg. Later, in the 1920s, he would go on to fund the Chair of Fine Art at the University of Cape Town, funding which led to the establishment of the Michaelis School of Fine Art.[1]

 Analysis of the work

The Concert of Birds is a work by one of the few Flemish artists in the Michaelis Collection. Frans Snyders (1579-1657) was active in Antwerp in the early seventeenth century and painted a number of versions of this subject. Of these, one is in the Hermitage in St Petersburg, two are in the Prado in Madrid and two are in the collection of Petworth House in England.

An artist’s near-identical reworking of a pictorial theme testifies to a significant public interest in it and this was certainly the case with birds in concert. In ballads and cheap illustrations, as well as in the expensive ‘high’ art of oil painting, the idea of birds singing together was a popular one and this image would have been far more familiar and comprehensible to audiences of the past than it is today. On one level, the work celebrates the artist’s capacity to portray a diversity of birdlife, the brilliant reds and yellows of the plumage against the blue sky making this image sparkle. But ultimately the painting is allegorical rather than documentary, containing hidden meaning.

The scene takes place on the sparse branches of a treetop whose trunk and other branches have been cropped. Its central character is an owl. To its right and left is a variety of other birds, exotic or familiar: a peacock, herons, a parrot, doves, wood-peckers, sparrowhawks. Most of these are perched, facing the owl. In the background we glimpse the crown of a leafy tree but the backdrop is largely made up of a cloudy sky, clearing at the horizon.

Beyond this documentary data, we enter the realm of the allegorical. Below the owl, balanced on the cropped tree-trunk, is a songbook. The birds’ beaks are open, indicating song, and the owl’s left foot is raised, as if conducting the choir. The work forms part of a long tradition of anthropomorphising animals and drawing on them symbolically, in literature, art and song, to deal with very human issues. Birds had long been associated with the soul; from ancient Egypt, this idea passed into Christian thought where the bird symbolised the soul departing the body at death. Meanwhile very early secular references to birds were found in the fables of the ancient Greek storyteller, Aesop, where particular birds – and other animals – came to be associated with certain human characteristics, the owl’s reputation for wisdom being one of these personifications. The owl was also believed to be feared by other birds in nature, so it acquired an extra symbolic sense of authority.

The singing of birds, often in groups, suggested the idea of them as collaborative creatures. In nature, of course, the birdsong occurs within species. In the ‘concert’ images, by contrast, the birds are of very diverse types, and yet they all sing together. Unity is achieved out of diversity. And this is done through music.

Music and musical instruments also carried rich symbolic associations which they have now lost. Specific instruments each had their place in an imagined hierarchy, depending on how noble or primitive they were thought to be, while musical composition was regarded very highly, as a form of contact with a divine order. The idea of the beneficial power of music-making was another with a long history: either instrumentally or in song, this was often a collaborative activity and one that, through its use of harmony, built a unified sound from parts. It was a short step from this to the idea of music-making and musical harmony as symbols of social and political harmony.

Ownership of the work

Ideas of this kind were attractive to those who commissioned and owned these ‘Concert of Birds’ works, typically members of the court or aristocracy. In these images, which were on one level innocent and witty depictions of their subject, the owners could read covert – and hopefully reassuring – messages about the preservation of social hierarchy and human order. Snyders became well-known for these bird allegories and had many imitators, leading to occasional problems of attribution where it is difficult to be sure of whether a concert work Is by Snyders or a follower.

A similar problem of attribution caused a crisis when the Michaelis Collection was first shown to the public in London, before being shipped to Cape Town: a portrait said to be by Rembrandt (Portrait of a Lady Holding a Glove) was declared by some critics to be a work by one of his followers instead. The outcry was such that Max Michaelis asked Hugh Lane to replace the portrait with a number of others that collectively matched its high purchase price.[2] No such controversy surrounded the Snyders work, but it was a reminder of the fraught business of attributions in the case of very old and valuable works of art.

The Michaelis Collection opened with this controversy very fresh in the public’s mind but soon became established and prized as the only substantial collection of old master art in South Africa. Its location in the Old Town House was interesting. Both the Johannesburg Art Gallery and the South African Art Gallery (as the national gallery was known at this time) tended to collect largely contemporary art or art of the recent past so it was felt by Max Michaelis and his agents that this collection of seventeenth-century art should be housed separately. It was a controversial decision which the South African Art Gallery opposed, but it remained separately housed and administered for nearly a century. When Iziko Museums was formed some twenty years ago, all the collections of Cape Town were amalgamated administratively and the Michaelis Collection was finally brought under the control of the re-named Iziko South African National Gallery.   

[1] After Max Michaelis’s death in 1932, his wife Lilian Michaelis gave a large number of paintings and works on paper to Pretoria and to the National Gallery in Cape Town.

[2] The doubted Rembrandt portrait, returned to Hugh Lane, was bequeathed by him to the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin where it remains to this day. It is currently catalogued as ‘studio of Rembrandt’.

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