How to Paint the Portrait of a Bird

     As I was preparing for Passport to the World: France on Wednesday, July 13, I remembered Mordicai Gerstein’s picture book, How to Paint the Portrait of a Bird, the author’s reflection on the nature of artistic inspiration.



A boy wakes up one morning to a bluebird singing at his open window.  He takes out a canvas and begins to follow the narrator’s instructions.  “First paint a cage with an open door…”  Within the cage, the boy must paint “something for the bird, something useful and beautiful, but simple.”  Next he is told to take the painting outside, into a garden or park or forest.  He leans it against a tree and waits, hiding, without speaking or moving.  The bluebird, who has been observing the boy, perches on a branch of the tree above the painting of the empty cage.


     If the bird enters the cage (and this is not guaranteed), the young artist is told to erase each bar, “being careful of the bird’s feathers.”  He then must re-create the beauty of the summer day, the “smell of the sunshine and the flowers” on the canvas in the hope that the trapped bird will sing.


     The text is taken from a poem by the French poet and screen-writer, Jacques Prévert whose poems are widely taught to French school children.  But Gerstein has made a significant change in his translation of “Pour faire le portrait d’un oiseau.”


     Prévert warns the artist:

Si l’oiseau ne chante pas
C’est mauvais signe
signe que le tableau est mauvais
mais s’il chante c’est bon signe
signe que vous pouvez signer


     Gerstein changes the words from “If the bird does not sing, it’s a bad sign, a sign that the picture is bad, but if it sings it’s a good sign, a sign that you can sign [the painting].”  Instead, readers are told, “If it doesn’t sing, don’t be sad.  You did your best.”


     Why did Gerstein alter the text?  Do you think it was necessary?  I’ve some thoughts, but would love to hear yours.



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2 Responses to How to Paint the Portrait of a Bird

  1. Amy says:

    Hmm. Maybe because that’s a heck of a lot of pressure to put on a kid?…. Also, I think of the saying “Use what talents you possess: The woods would be very silent if no birds sang there except those that sang best.” I like that Gerstein acknowledges the boy’s effort. A lot of times , when characters are into art or music or what have you, they’re seemingly effortlessly good at it or destined for it or both. Prevert is setting up this intricate undertaking, something that probably not everyone would be able to do. Most people wouldn’t even make the effort. The fact that the boy’s even attempting it speaks well of him, that he’s taking pains just to please some bird. And there’s more than one bird out there, presumably; what if another bird would have sung at it?

    As far as the change being necessary, I don’t know. Maybe not, if you’re talking to a seasoned artist, but on the whole – I like the more merciful version on a day like today.

  2. Julie says:

    I agree; I think the change in important for a children’s book, especially one published in the United States. I wonder if the poem is still part of the French curriculum and if so, does the poet’s rather brutal statement “the picture is bad” say something about the French attitude towards child rearing? Qui sait?! All I can remember is that the French often referred to Americans, at least in the late 1960’s, as “les grands enfants,” overgrown children, and not as a compliment!

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