An Indian picture of the Dodo

by A. Iwanow - Leningrad 1958

It is very difficult to recall any other extinct bird more popular than the dodo.

The dodo is well known to many people, both professional zoologists and persons not especially interested in natural history. It is unnecessary to repeat here the sad story of its extermination. As you know this strange bird was exterminated in its homeland about 300 years ago. Let me only recall that the dodo became known to civilised Europeans in 1598, and the last dodo was recorded in life in 1681. The distance between these two dates is very short.

In spite of this, we know quite a number of dodo pictures. They are very diverse. Some of them are very rude and primitive sketches - illustrations in old Dutch descriptions of voyages to the remote island of Mauritius. Naturally these sketches are very far from perfection. Sometimes you can recognise the dodos on these plates only with great difficulties.

Besides these old Dutch primitive pictures we know very good ones. They were painted by the famous Flemish artist Roelandt Savery. He had the possibility to paint dodos from life, when a few of them were brought to Europe from the Mascarene island. Many picturesque landscapes painted by this excellent artist are literally crowded with animal life. Since different animals in Savery's paintings are depicted very well, we have all reasons to say that the dodos were painted quite correct too.

Therefore Roelandt Savery's pictures can be considered as very good scientific documents. Besides these correct and authentic illustrations, we know a number of others. They are either exact copies of R. Savery's pictures or his dodos portraits were "corrected" and "completed" without any reason.

In all we know a rather long series of pictures published in different monographs. The first of these monographs - the excellent Strickland and Melville's book - appeared more than a century ago in 1848.

It seems that all pictures which could be found in different Museums and Art Galleries were found, described and published. But reality proved this to be wrong.

In 1956 Dr. Herbert Friedmann, the Curator of the Division of Birds in the U.S. National Museum in Washington, published a very interesting article: "New Light on the Dodo and its Illustrations." He wrote about some new unpublished designs of dodos discovered in museums of Europe and the U.S.A.

My first attempt to find in the Leningrad and Moscow Art Museums any pictures of the dodo gave no results. There are some of R. Savery's oil paintings and drawings in the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad, and in the Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow, but no dodos were on these pictures.

The only picture of the dodo known to me in the U.S.S.R. was a rather good full size copy of the well known picture painted by Johannes Savery in 1651. The original one is in Oxford now.

And then I came across a still unknown pictures of the dodo, a very interesting one, I can say.

At the very end of 1955 it occurred to me to visit an exhibition of old Indian and Persian miniatures organised in the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad. These miniatures, belonging to the Hermitage and the Institute of Orientalistics of the Academy of Sciences of the U.S.S.R. were very diverse. There were miniatures on historical, zoological, botanical subjects and so on. It was natural that first of all my attention was attracted by wonderful pictures of birds, exhibited among other miniatures.

There were falcon, a guinea-fowl, a bustard, stone chats, finches, tragopans and so on. And amongst others an excellent picture of the dodo which you will see now on the screen.

The most remarkable fact is that this wonderful bird was painted by an Oriental, not an European artist. I regret to say that we know nothing about the name of this artist. It can be the famous Indian artist Ustad Mansur or somebody of his school, but we do not know it, as the picture is unsigned.

For the same reason nothing can be said about the exact time when the picture was painted.

I have had some consultations with specialists in Persian art and was told the picture was painted no later than the middle of the 17 th century. Living dodos still existed at that time.

This dodo's portrait is a part of an excellent set of Indian and Persian old miniatures very different by their origin and subjects. In the middle of the 18 th century all these pictures were provided with a broad ornamented border and united in one volume. This volume belongs now to the fine collection of Oriental manuscripts of the Institute of Orientalistics in Leningrad.

All these paintings are still unpublished. Recently two young Leningrad orientalists finished the study of this nice set and prepare it for publication.

The careful study of the picture itself can lead to very diverse hypotheses.

Of course the most attractive hypothesis for an ornithologist is that the picture was taken from life by some court artist in an aviary of some Moghul emperor in Indian or Shah in Persia.

It is very probable, for as far as we know, the rulers of different Oriental countries and especially the Moghul emperors, Jahangir for instance, had excellent aviaries and zoos crowded with birds and animals collected from many countries.

As soon as I came across this picture I wrote to Dr. Salim Ali in Bombay. In his kind letter he gave me full information on this question. But he wrote he never came across any mention of a dodo in Indian or Persian manuscripts.

Such a remarkable bird as the dodo was, could be a real decoration of any court aviary. The dodo could be brought from Mauritius and presented as a rarity to the Emperor or Shah by some Indian or Persian mariners, or even by Dutchmen or Portuguese.

As you can see, the dodo is placed among native Asiatic birds — the tragopan, Indian sandgrouses, a parrot and ducks. For the period in which the picture was taken, it must be considered of unusual scientific accuracy. It supports the hypothesis that the picture was taken from life.

This hypothesis is the most attractive for me, but I can not deny another possibility. It may also be the copy of some European pictures because the same collection of miniatures includes several copies of European pictures. Comparison of the miniature with all portraits of dodos I have ever seen before showed that it is not a real copy of any picture. Now I am anxious to make further research, and hope the problem will be solved.

Source: Journal für Ornithologie, 1958, 99. Band , Dr. Erwin Stresemann


Copyright Dodohaus Berlin 2004