John Gould: The Family of Toucans

Jonathan Elphick
John Gould: The Family of Toucans
(Taschen, 2011)

Taschen’s resuscitation of John Gould’s series of prints, The Family of Toucans, comes in an impressively unwieldy box, measured at 13.3 by 19.3 inches. Inside one finds a short text, which serves as a preamble for the following 51 prints, providing a biography of Gould and a brief outline of the history of the toucan in the arts and sciences. Gould, though given sole authorial possession of these prints by the book’s title, actually worked in collaboration with his wife, Elizabeth Gould, and Edward Lear, who is now most famous for having written the children’s tale The Owl and the Pussycat. The purpose of their work lies in a gray zone between scientific fieldwork, artistic expression, and commercial entertainment. These are the first images ever made of certain toucan breeds, thereby functioning to extend ornithological study, while at the same time they were being sold to wealthy subscribers as an artist’s exotic images of foreign lands.

John Gould and Henry Constantine Richter, Ramphastos Inca, lithograph with hand-coloring, 1846.

Sifting through the numerous beautifully printed images is a strange experience. Down to the precise pigment of their plumage, the toucans are rendered in painstaking realist fashion. The bright reds, yellows, and blues that mark each breed compel the viewer to look closer, and striking discoveries emerge. There is a weightiness to each bird’s eyes (usually only one eye, as most of the birds are shown in profile), to their unblinking stare. How should we position ourselves in the face of these nonhuman life forms? At times a certain romantic anthropomorphism shows up, as in the case with the image of the Ramphastos dicolorus. Here we see a full grown of this type, and two of its young. The adult leans over the children in a defensive pose, while one of the youths has its mouth open wide as if it was in the middle of a plaintive cry. The adult’s face expresses parental concern, and the ominously gray trees in the background, which strongly resemble a billowing cloud of smoke, give the entire image an anxious narrative thrust. In images like these we see ourselves, and what we like to think of as our own natures, played out through the figures of our bestial stand-ins.

And yet the tenets of scientific practice are still being observed here, and this tethers the human imagination from flying too far from the birds themselves. Many images confront us with the animal’s alienness, its absolute inhumanity, denying our attempts to decipher our own reflections in their countenance. The image of the Ramphastos toco, for example: its bulging eyes seem so alive, and yet so unrelated to any type of life we have experienced, that we are left frightened in the face of the bird’s blankness. In these images we find the permanently disconnected smile of the toucan’s oversized beak, the empty eyes that seem to swallow us up as we contemplate them, that type of “bottomless stupidity” which Werner Herzog famously ascribed to chickens.

My favorite prints are those that combine the animal and the human in unexpected ways. This is the case with the picture of the Ramphastos inca, who is depicted alone, perched on a branch with a mountain in the background. The bird has a presence, one might almost be tempted to say a sense of dignity, that is conveyed through its central position on the page and its expanded chest. When its eyes meet our own they neither give way to our human narcissism, which demands that we be replicated even in that which we deem unlike us, nor do they lead us to Herzog’s nightmarish vision of the nonhuman. Yes, the Ramphastos inca has very little in common with us, but in this instance that is not a cause for fear but rather a mystery to be marveled at.


Benjamín Schultz-Figueroa

BENJAMÍN SCHULTZ-FIGUEROA is an artist, theorist, and independent curator based out of Brooklyn, New York.