BIRDWATCHING in the Freer Gallery?
To write the labels for its show, "Chinese Bird and Flower Paintings," the Freer needed to consult the neighborhood ornithologists -- S. Dillon Ripley, secretary emeritus of the Smithsonian, and Richard L. Zusi, curator of birds at the Natural History Museum.
And so for the 18th-century handscroll, "A Hundred Birds Worship the Phoenixes," we find this life list: herons, egrets, pheasants, peacocks, orioles, swallows, ducks, geese, cranes and a variety of songbirds.
The Chinese phoenix is especially elusive. The mythical bird is said to appear only when a virtuous emperor is ruling. The rising red sun in this painting is a symbol confirming the presence of benevolent royalty.
When the phoenix perches, as can be seen in a hanging scroll here, it is only on the wu- tung tree, and when it eats, it feeds only on wu-tung seeds. The bird is a good omen -- when you can find it.
In the paintings on display here, from the 12th through 19th centuries, many of the birds carry the plumage of symbolism: the graceful cranes mean immortality; the cock, bravery; a pair of Mandarin ducks, happy marriage.
The artists depicted the birds in two styles -- either carefully outlined and filled in with true colors, or loosely washed with monochrome ink. And, although they sought to capture the essence of the bird, the painters were realistic enough in their sensitive technique for birders to identify their subjects centuries later.