Bella and Hanna, the Eldest Daughters of M L Nathanson by C W Eckersberg, 1820 Denmark (Copenhagen), Statens Museum for Kunst
During the years around 1820, C.W. Eckersberg was busy painting portraits of the affluent citizens of Copenhagen. The artist’s greatest patron during his young years, the merchant Mendel Levin Nathanson, commissioned two large family portraits.
The painting’s two young girls
In one of the two works he painted Nathanson’s two oldest daughters, Bella and Hanna, in a sparingly furnished drawing room with simple panelling and furniture, including a table bearing a parrot’s cage.
The two girls are shown in uncompromising poses – one strictly frontal, the other strictly from the side – and as they look very much alike, it seems likely that the painter wished to create a variation on a theme; variations like those created by the famous Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen around the same time.
Symbolic readings of the painting
The parrot opens up the scene to symbolic readings. Due to their ability to imitate human voices parrots were often seen as symbols of good breeding, a suitable allusion for a picture of two young middle-class woman. At the same time, however, the caged bird can also be regarded as a metaphor for the two unmarried women’s sheltered situation while waiting – perhaps longing? – to move out into real life.
Parrots were featured in depictions of the Annunciation, since they’re foreign and exotic in most of Europe and Israel is an foreign place so parrots seemed fitting (even if they don’t actually live there). This led to an association with the Virgin Mary, seen with a parrot in works such as Jan van Eyck’s 1434 Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele. From this comes a broader association with mothers and motherhood. Something to think about.