Caribbean Bird Vendor

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Template:Tone Caribbean Bird Vendor is a painting by Ellis Wilson in 1953. It is now part of Hampton University’s permanent exhibition.


The painting is oil on canvas and is roughly 3 ft wide and 2 ft tall. The work is an expressionistic portrait of a dark skinned, shirtless, adult Caribbean male holding three birds. The man and his three birds are all looking straight out of the painting at the viewer. Hazy, neutral yellow leaves are in the background, while the man and his other two birds are dark. The parrot sitting on the man’s shoulder is calm and his beak is closed. The second bird is sitting on the man’s cupped palm and resting, his beak is also closed. The man is wrapping one arm around the biggest bird. This bird is bright lilac and very elaborate, contrasting with the rest of the painting. The bird’s beak is open and its wings are spread as if it is about to break free of the man’s arm and take flight. The viewer’s attention jumps straight to this bird and is pulled counter clockwise by the direction of each bird’s beak.


The painting gives off a foreboding feeling of tension. The man’s expression makes him seem absent from the events of the painting, as if he is thinking deeply to himself. His gaze is not focused, as if he is looking past the viewer, and his eyes look very despondent. He is painted with the darkest colors in the painting and pales in comparison to the biggest bird. The bright colors and movement make this bird vivid, bursting with energy. The way the bird’s eyes are outlined makes them look wide open, as if the bird is in panic. Unlike the parrot, whose feet are calmly on the man’s shoulder with claws hidden, the bright bird is waving its legs and flexing its claws. The title tells us that the man is a vendor, so he knows he has to sell the bird. Most people wouldn’t be so calm and composed while holding a frantic bird, yet the man only uses one arm. He doesn’t squeeze the bird and his hand looks gentle and steady. The way he places his palm across the bird’s chest suggests that he is trying to comfort it. The man could be sympathetic towards the bird. Maybe one day he was also uncomfortable with his fate and wanted desperately to break away in search of something better. He understands the panic, but he knows the bird needs to come to terms with captivity. The man is obviously a native, and lower class. The traditional island life-style of the Caribbean does not match his occupation. The man probably works hard while earning little money. He has to take the beauty natural to the islands and sells it to people of the upper class. These people don’t appreciate this natural beauty; if they did they would set the bird free. They will take this bird into captivity as if it’s a trinket. Selling this bird is a symbol of business and excess encroaching on the peace of the Caribbean islands.