Following his return to Europe after years living in exile in America, Max Ernst chose to settle in the small hamlet of Huismes in the Loire Valley, writing shortly after the move: ‘It is beautiful and gentle and calm here’ (quoted in W. Spies and J. Drost, eds., Max Ernst: Retrospective, exh. cat., Vienna, 2013, p. 279). It was in this verdant green landscape, surrounded by the idyllic beauty of the French countryside, that his paintings reached a new level of harmony and peace, suffused with an almost fairytale atmosphere rooted in the natural world. Seemingly illuminated from within, Le hibou et sa fille (The Owl and his daughter) achieves a depth and complexity of surface that calls to mind, through relentless point and counterpoint, American post-war painting. However, though created at the height of the Abstract Expressionist movement, this painting remains firmly rooted in nature through the presence of the benign avian creatures at its centre, lending the scene a clearly figurative, if distinctly otherworldly reality.
Ernst had utilized animal imagery, and bird forms especially, throughout his career. In his mind, the animal world stood apart from our own, pure and free from the folly of human ambition, a dream-like memory of a paradise lost. Ernst wrote: ‘The world throws off its cloak of darkness, it offers to our horrified and enchanted eyes the dramatic spectacle of its nudity, and we mortals have no choice but to cast off our blindness and greet the rising suns, moons and sea levels: Be it with awe and controlled emotion, as with the Indians of North America, corralled into their reserves. Be it with song, sonority and music-making by such as the blackbird, thrush, finch and starling (and the whole host of poets)’ (quoted in Histoire naturelle, Cologne, 1965).