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Essay – Michiel Simons – Dead game birds in a landscape

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Essay - Michiel Simons - Dead game birds in a landscape

At the foot of a rock or cliff in a mountainous landscape lies a still life of dead birds: a woodcock at the left, to its right a male pheasant and a large black bird of some kind, perhaps a grouse; in front are two partridges, a finch and a goldfinch, easily recognised by its yellow-and-black wings and red face. In the seventeenth century all these species were considered edible and were regularly hunted. The birds in Simons’s painting also appear to be the spoils of a hunt, as depicted in the background, where we find a man on horseback, several servants, dogs and the striking figure of woman in a bright yellow dress riding a grey.1

Little is known about the painter of this picture, Michiel Simons. The only certainty is that he spent part of his life working in Utrecht; documents indicate that he was there at least from 1669 until his death in 1673.2 An inventory of 1644 seems to suggest that he was born and trained in Antwerp. Still lifes with dead birds were Simons’s speciality, although he did occasionally depict shot game or fruit. This painting belongs to a distinctive category of works that combine hunting still lifes with landscape.3 The scenery here, with its steep cliffs bathed in the golden light of the setting sun, strongly recalls the Italianate landscapes of Jan Both (fig. 1). Following a sojourn in Italy, Both worked from 1642 onwards in his native city of Utrecht. The land­scape in Simons’s painting shows that in 1650 he was well acquainted with Both’s work, implying that he must have been active in Utrecht from an early date, in any case before the first official mention of his name in 1669.

Simons may have become familiar with the game still life while still in Flanders. It had been a popular theme there since 1610, with Frans Snyders (1579-1657) as its first and foremost practitioner, closely followed by Jan Fyt (1611-1661). In the northern Netherlands the genre only came into fashion much later, around 1650.4 The city of Utrecht played a central role in this development. In addition to Simons, Jan Baptist Weenix (cat. no. 63) had been active there as a painter of game pictures since 1649.

It seems possible that the growing interest in the hunt still life may have had something to do with the spread of aristocratic ideals among the wealthy urban patriciate in this period.5 They built country houses – among others, along the river Vecht – and hunting, too, which had traditionally been the exclusive domain of the nobility, became one of their favourite pastimes. Simons’s work can thus likely be related to the growing desire for status among these members of the regent class. Partridges, for example, which occupy a prominent place in the picture, were considered a typical gentleman’s delicacy. Johan van Beverwijck, Simons’s fellow townsman, commented in this regard in 1651:

‘The partridge […] has never been as common as other members of the pheasant family, and has therefore always been particularly highly valued. Partridges are rarely found at the ordinary table; their meat is reserved for gentlemen of epicurean persuasion’.6