Crow Art Around the World

Updated on November 14, 2016
An illustration of a crow from the 1921 book "An Argosy of Fables".
An illustration of a crow from the 1921 book "An Argosy of Fables". | Source

Welcome!

One of the world's most misunderstood birds is the crow. Mischievous and annoying to others, scary to others, the crow has been depicted throughout history as a creepy, cackling bird, a trickster, and sometimes as a stupid, bumbling bird. But did you know in reality, the crow is one of the most intelligent beings alive?

While crows have a tendency to annoy or creep out many people, there are others who are fascinated by them. These people include a number of artists who have been so fascinated by the crow they have been compelled to paint or draw it!

"Crow Art..." is about the crow in art around the world, those artists who have turned a bird that most people view as a pest into a graceful art subject, and the works of art in which they are a main subject. Of course this hub is also a tribute to the crow itself! Please keep in mind that this hub is more of an overview and history of crow art rather than a detailed listing of crow paintings, bios of crow artists, or anything like that. If you're a fan of crow/corvid art, crows in general or just fascinated by watching crows, I hope you find plenty in this hub to satisfy your knowledge about that mysterious blackbird that could be standing in your front yard at this very moment!

A handpainted illustration circa 13th century AD taken from "The Fables of Bidpai".
A handpainted illustration circa 13th century AD taken from "The Fables of Bidpai". | Source

The Crow in Art and History

In countries and cultures all around the world, the crow has a wide variety of meaning and significance. This significance is often reflected in that particular country's artwork and art styles.

In Celtic legends, crows represent the Celtic goddess of beauty and love Branwen. Her brother Bran the Blessed is represented by the raven.

Crows are common in ancient Native American and Inuit artwork. Crows have various meanings from Nation to Nation across Turtle Island (North America). They are tricksters in the stories of some people, thieves in others, and to other tribes they are the creature that created the world. To the Inuits, the crow is the creature that brought daylight to the Inuit people and they are forever grateful to him for his gift.

Crows were also depicted in ancient Arab artwork. In the Arab world, the crow is known as the "father of omens", or Abu Zajir. Manuscripts of fables such as The Fables of Bidpai (also known as Kalila and Dimna) dating back to the 13th century can be found in modern-day Middle Eastern countries such as Iraq and Syria. Many of these manuscripts feature handpainted illustrations of crows in the fables about them, such as The Fable of the Fox and Crow and the Crow King (see right) from "Bidpai."

In Western art, crows are commonly depicted standing on a tree branch staring into the moonlight, or as part of a bleak, barren landscape.

Let's have a look at crows in art around the world, some of the artists who have painted this fascinating bird, and the genres in which the crow have been featured:

The Naturalists

Some of the most famous drawings of crows were no doubt the ones made by the naturalists of the 18th and 19th centuries. While these drawings were made principally for scientific studies, they ended up becoming famous works of art in themselves!

Two naturalists whose depictions of crows are famous worldwide are the French-American John James Audobon and Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon.

Buffon and Audobon observed crows in their natural environment and depicted the crow doing its everyday routines such as eating, in their sketches and paintings.

"American Crow" by John James Audubon and Julius Bien.
"American Crow" by John James Audubon and Julius Bien. | Source

John James Audubon

John James Audubon was a Franco-American orinthologist, taxidermist, painter, and leading naturalist. Audubon had a passion for birds from the time he was a child and this passion would lead him to make thousands of drawings and paintings of them in his lifetime. His greatest work is the book "Birds of America", which contains his illustrations of 497 species of North American birds. This book remains one of the greatest books ever written on orinthology.

Audubon depicted almost every known corvid species in North America, including crows. One of the birds featured in this book is the American crow (right). Audubon drew the birds in their natural environment and captured on paper not only the birds, but trees and plants of the time as well!

His lithographs remain some of the most accurate, detailed and relevant depictions of crows - or any other bird for that matter - ever recorded in art and in science!

Crow illustration from Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon's "Histoire naturelle" encyclopedia.
Crow illustration from Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon's "Histoire naturelle" encyclopedia. | Source

Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon

Next to John James Audubon, another naturalist whose paintings and drawings of crows have remained famous worldwide is Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon. Buffon was a mathematician, author, and cosmologist whose theories set the stage for naturalist thought in the late 17th century.

During his lifetime he published a 36 volume set of encyclopedias on the natural world titled Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière. This set contained some very vivid and beautiful illustrations of wildlife drawn by a number of French artists. A posthumous work published in 1853-55 titled Oeuvres Completes de Buffon is a book about birds and is full of illustrations taken from Histoire naturelle.

Both works contain a number of amazingly detailed illustrations of crows and corvids, including ordinary black crows (right), jackdaws, and hooded crows. Along with Audubon's works, they remain some of the most detailed depictions of crows ever drawn.

A Samjokgo (legendary three-legged crow) mural on the wall of a Goguryeo tomb.
A Samjokgo (legendary three-legged crow) mural on the wall of a Goguryeo tomb. | Source

Samjokgo: The Three-Legged Crow of Korea

In Korea, legends have existed for millinea about the three-legged crow, or the Samjokgo (삼족오) as it's known in the Korean language.

The Samjokgo was especially prevalent in the ancient kingdom of Goguryeo (modern-day North Korea and much of modern-day northeast China. Also spelled "Koguryo"). Depictions of the Samjokgo can be found in mural paintings in ancient tombs all across the lands of the former kingdom.

Unlike other northeast Asian nations that revered the dragon and the tiger, the Samjokgo was revered by the people of Goguryeo. It was thought to be an extremely powerful bird. So powerful that its power was greater than that of the dragon and phoenix, which were revered by Goguryeo's neighbors in modern-day China, Japan, and South Korea!

Crow painting by Kawanabe Kyosai (1831-1889).
Crow painting by Kawanabe Kyosai (1831-1889). | Source

Kawanabe Kyōsai: Japan's Legendary Crow Painter

One of Japan's last great artists from the 19th century was Kawanabe Kyōsai. Kyōsai was an artist who emerged at a time when Japan was rife with corruption in the ruling Edo shogunate, which imposed strict censorship on the populace. He stayed popular throughout the Meiji period when Japan opened its doors to the outside world. Kyosai was an artist and political satirist famous for his paintings and woodcuts of demons, satirical paintings of Japanese politicians (which got him arrested by Edo authorities on a few occasions), ladies in kimonos, and of crows. In fact, his crow paintings were so popular among foreigners that he had a seal made which featured the phrase "crows flying over every land"!

Unlike Western painters who painted crows up close, Kyōsai painted his crows by memory. He would observe the crow in its natural environment, make a mental note of the scene, and go home and paint it!

To this day Kyōsai has remained one of the world's great crow painters and his paintings are on display at museums around the world alongside other great works of Japanese art.

Raven lithograph by British naturalist Sir William Jardine (1800-1874).
Raven lithograph by British naturalist Sir William Jardine (1800-1874). | Source

Raven Art

Another bird that's gotten a (unfairly) bad rap over the centuries is the crow's corvid cousin, the raven. In many cultures, the raven is viewed as an omen of death or a cunning trickster. Of course, ravens are widely associated with Edgar Allen Poe's famous short story "The Raven". All around the world, artwork depicting ravens has reflected these views, or else is just plan dark and creepy.

Ravens are frequently depicted in gothic artwork or in a situation where the subject of a painting is knocking on Death's doorstep.

One popular depiction of ravens in Western artwork comes from the Bible. In 1 Kings 17, God sent ravens to feed meat to the prophet Elijah. Even though there's been debate in modern times about whether or not ravens were the true subject of this story, they've been depicted many times in art (especially religious art) feeding Elijah and helping him on his way.

"The Tree of Crows" by Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840).
"The Tree of Crows" by Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840). | Source

European Crow Painters

Many of Europe's greatest painters have been inspired by the crow. Some of their most famous works of art feature this mysterious bird, and the crow adds a sense of mystery and even despair to the painting's landscape.

In 1822, the German landscape painter Caspar David Friedrich painted a painting titled The Tree of Crows (Der Baum der Krähen). As we can see, this surreal painting depicts an oak tree in the midst of other long-dead, rotting trees.This tree stands guard over the burial dolmen of a Hun warrior who died defending his homeland from invading Roman legionnaires many centuries ago. Flying overhead is a flock of crows. In this painting, the crows and the dead trees represent death. The tree has withstood the test of Time and lasted through whatever Mother Nature has thrown at it. The Tree of Crows was painted in amazing, contrasting color by Friedrich.

One European painter who made some striking paintings featuring crows was the French Impressionist painter Charles-François Daubigny (1817-1878). In his 1873 paintings Snowy Landscape at Sunset and Crows Perching in Trees, we see bleak wintry landscapes dotted with crows. Flocks of crows are perched in leafless trees and all over the ground below. The crows add a sense of bleakness and chill to the scene.

Another famous crow painting comes from Daubigny's fellow Impressionist and Barbizon painter Jean-François Millet (1814-1875). Millet's paintings often depicted French peasants and the French countryside....and the hardship they endured. In his 1862 painting Winter With Crows, he used our favorite corvid to drive this point home! In this painting, we see a barren sky and a rugged field dotted with crows. Littering this field are stubs of crops and farm equipment. Winter is starting to set in and the crops have all been harvested for the season. The backbreaking labor put into harvesting the crops is apparent, and the crows are helping themselves to the scraps.

According to John Berger in his essay Millet and the Peasant , this painting depicts struggle. A struggle for the vertical elements of the soil to be "cultivated" in the midst of the vast plain, which represents the horizontal and dominates the painting.

Both Daubigny and Millet would go on to influence another great Impressionist painter: Vincent Van Gogh.

"Wheat Field With Crows" by Vincent Van Gogh.
"Wheat Field With Crows" by Vincent Van Gogh. | Source

Wheat Field With Crows

One of Vincent Van Gogh's most striking - and most mysterious paintings is his 1890 painting "Wheat Field With Crows". Over the years this painting has been widely believed to be his final painting, although that claim has been disputed in .

In the painting, we see a dark, stormy sky over a yellow wheat field. In the middle of this wheat field is a path coming to a dead end. Over the field is a flock crows, whose destination is uncertain.

The meaning of "Wheat Field With Crows" has been a subject of debate over the past century. Many art experts and Van Gogh aficionados interpret the stormy landscape, dead-end path and crows as a reflection of Van Gogh's tormented state of mind and loss of direction at the end of his life. Others see it as a reflection of Van Gogh's love and respect for nature and inspiration from works of art by some of the other European painters mentioned above. Still others believe it to be based on a sermon he gave about Paul Bunyan's novel The Pilgrim's Progress in which he discussed the weary pilgrim reaching the end of his journey down the long, seemingly unending path to Heaven.

Whichever way one decides to interpret this painting, it is a very dark but mesmerizing painting made by a brilliant but tormented artist. It is certainly one of the most powerful paintings to ever depict crows.

Bruno Liljefors's 1891 painting "Hooded Crows". This was one of the first of the wildlife paintings outside the scientific realm that continue to be made today.
Bruno Liljefors's 1891 painting "Hooded Crows". This was one of the first of the wildlife paintings outside the scientific realm that continue to be made today. | Source

The Crow in Modern Art

Crows have continued to be a part of art up to the present day. We can find numerous contemporary crow paintings by various artists, both famous and not so famous. Crows are also an important part of country or folk art, and in Halloween art and decorations.

One art genre where crows (and other corvids) play an important role is in wildlife art. Wildlife artists have painted the crow in the wilderness for over a century now. This trend began with artists such as the Swedish wildlife artist Bruno Liljefors (right) in the late 19th century and continues up to the present day.

Thanks For Stopping By!

Crows are without a doubt one of the most intelligent animals alive, and a bird that's fascinating to watch in its everyday environment. They are also more than happy to be an art subject! Sadly enough, they are one of the birds that's least understood by humans. Our perception of them as one of the world's creepiest birds has prevented us from seeing how graceful and human-like these birds can be.

Thanks for stopping by and hopefully you've enjoyed your visit! If you have any questions, comments, or any other feedback, feel free to leave it in the Comments. I welcome any and all feedback!

Questions & Answers

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      • truefaith7 profile imageAUTHOR

        truefaith7 

        6 months ago from USA

        You are most welcome Ingemar and I'm happy to have provided you a little inspiration! Good luck with all your artistic endeavors and have a very happy and healthy 2018!

      • profile image

        Ingemar Nyström 

        6 months ago

        Being an artist who mostly paint crows, this was an inspiring site!

        Thanks

        Ingemar

        Artist, Sweden

      • kenneth avery profile image

        Kenneth Avery 

        3 years ago from Hamilton, Alabama

        truefaith7,

        You are very welcome for the feedback, which by the way, was the truth. I try to never waste time or compliments. You are a terrific writer and just keep up the terrific work.

        Thank you also for the following. I cherish you now, and all of my followers.

        You all are the inspiration for me to write hubs.

      • truefaith7 profile imageAUTHOR

        truefaith7 

        3 years ago from USA

        Thanks so much for the feedback and glad you enjoyed the hub Kenneth! Even though I've been busy with other endeavors over the past year or so, I am getting back to online writing and will certainly try to keep it up. Take care and hope to see you back at my hubs soon!

      • kenneth avery profile image

        Kenneth Avery 

        4 years ago from Hamilton, Alabama

        Hello truefaith7,

        This is an excellent piece of writing. Amazing in every aspect of writing.

        I loved every word--and the lay-out was superb. Graphics, excellent.

        Voted up and all the choices because you deserve it.

        You have such a gift for writing. Just keep writing and good things are bound to happen to you.

        I cordially invite you to read one or two of my hubs, and be one of my followers.

        That would make my day.

        I am so honored to meet you.

        Sincerely,

        Kenneth Avery, Hamilton, Alabama

      • truefaith7 profile imageAUTHOR

        truefaith7 

        5 years ago from USA

        Thanks for the feedback guys! I'm glad you enjoyed the hub and found it to be a fitting tribute to the crow! @aviannovice: I couldn't agree more. Crows are definitely a bird of mystery. Some of their behavior is human-like! It's fascinating to watch them in their everyday routine and interacting with each other. I've also had a good relationship with crows, and they are always welcome in our yard!

      • aviannovice profile image

        Deb Hirt 

        5 years ago from Stillwater, OK

        The birds of black are the chalice where the drink of mystery is entertained. I adore corvids and have always had a good relationship with them. They seek me out and I reciprocate in whatever way I can.

      • Nettlemere profile image

        Nettlemere 

        5 years ago from Burnley, Lancashire, UK

        A brilliant celebration of crows - I love them and really enjoyed your article.

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