Yellow Birds c.1960s
This painting of three yellow birds and flowers is atypical of Maud Lewis’s larger body of work, but it reflects the type of composition she preferred for the interior decoration of her house. It relates more to the decorated storm door of the house, for instance, than to any of her landscapes. The floral pattern is emphatically flat and reminiscent of wallpaper or fabric patterns. There are no shadows here, certainly, but also no depth of field—the painting is all surface. Where it has similarities to other works is in its connection to Lewis’s recurring image of the three black cats: a mother and two kittens, presented in a flat field, surrounded by flowers. Like the cats, this has become one of Lewis’s most reproduced images.
Here the tangled boughs, with their bright blossoms, create a screen in the foreground that supports the birds, obviously goldfinches, with their yellow bodies and black wings and caps. (The black caps mark them all as male goldfinches, who, by the time the young are the size of these fledglings, will often take on the feeding responsibilities from the mother bird.) Lewis normally takes an expansive view, showing more of the landscape. This is the sort of scene she would only have observed up close, perhaps in the verges of her own yard. As Lance Woolaver wrote, “Maud enjoyed painting sweet peas, tulips and roses. The return of songbirds to the apple blossoms was for Maud an event worth recording.”
There are not multiple versions of this painting, as it was not a popular seller. That is unfortunate, as to contemporary eyes, at least, its exuberance and cheerfulness make it one of Lewis’s most compelling images. It has also become one of her widely marketed images, appearing on book covers and on consumer goods such as mugs and T-shirts. At the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in Halifax there is even a “selfie-station” where visitors can have their pictures taken inside an enlarged version of this painting.