I was standing in a room at the National Gallery of Art last October, puzzling at three Dutch paintings of women with parrots: Gerrit Dou’s Woman With a Parrot (1660), Frans van Mieris’s Woman Feeding a Parrot (1663), and Caspar Netscher’s Woman Feeding a Parrot, With a Page (1666). Having come to see the 65 works making up Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivalry, I had already looked at three paintings of women with lutes; two of women with clavichords; a half dozen of women writing, reading, or sealing letters (as well as one of a man writing a letter); two of women weighing coins on a balance scale; three of women washing their hands; and two of women peeling produce—an apple in one case, a parsnip in the other. Yet the parrots gave me pause. Why, I wondered, had three of the most famous Dutch genre painters dealt with the same scene within six years of one another? The accompanying wall text provided little help: “Expensive pets imported from the distant lands of the vast Dutch commercial empire, parrots were valued for the beauty of their plumage and their ability to imitate speech.”
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