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Essay – Melchior d’Hondecoeter – An Eagle, a Swallow, a Snipe and a Finch in Flight

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Essay - Melchior d’Hondecoeter - An Eagle, a Swallow, a Snipe and a Finch in Flight

Melchior d’Hondecoeter is the bird painter par excellence of the Dutch Golden Age. One could say it was his destiny to become the ‘Raphael of bird painters’. Born into an artistically gifted family, he was the grandson of Gillis Claesz d’Hondecoeter (1575/80 – 1638), who already painted birds and animals in his landscapes, and the son and pupil of Gijsbert Gillisz d’Hondecoeter (1603/4 – 1653), also a painter of birds, animals and landscapes.

Most of Melchior’s paintings depict poultry and waterfowl. Our work not only stands out because it shows a majestic bird of prey centre stage instead, all birds are portrayed in their flight with a cloud-filled sky as backdrop. The painting was likely a commission and given the viewpoint – we look up to the birds – it will have been executed for a specific and high spot in the patron’s house.In the depiction of deceptively real live birds Melchior d’Hondecoeter was a pioneer and unrivalled at that. This striking liveliness was in no small part inspired by the works of his other tutor, his uncle Jan Baptist Weenix (1621 – 1659), with whom he studied in his native Utrecht. Weenix imbued his occasional animal paintings with similar vigour. A poignant example is his boldly painted and life-size portrait of a goat in the Rijksmuseum.

D’Hondecoeter’s preserved output numbers more than 200 paintings. His early production already displays a hugely varied subject matter. One of his earliest dated works of 1658 already features live birds. After a sojourn in The Hague in the late 1650s to early 1660s d’Hondecoeter married and settled in Amsterdam in 1663 where he found fresh inspiration in the game pieces of Willem van Aelst (1627 – 1683). D’Hondecoeter would stay in this thriving city for the rest of his life and here develop the theme of park landscapes with exotic birds and poultry yards on which his present- day fame rests. A great part of D’Hondecoeter’s oeuvre bespeaks aristocratic allure. He had a penchant for birds originating from exotic parts of the world – Asia, South America and Africa – that obviously were prized possessions of their owners and adorned their menageries. Similarly, his hunting still lifes explicitly evoke a pastime that was the sole privilege of the landed gentry. D’Hondecoeter’s grand paintings of waterfowl in park-like settings are a princely display and sometimes even include the patron’s manor in the background. Although few of the artist’s clients have so far been identified d’Hondecoeter will have worked mainly for wealthy members of the Amsterdam elite and his clientele included at least one princely patron, stadholder William III of Orange and King of England as of 1689 (1650 – 1702). The latter ordered imposing canvases from the artist to decorate his three palaces Honselaarsdijk, Soestdijk and Het Loo. The eagle is of course himself the king of birds. The artist did not faithfully record an actual specimen in our painting, however. According to the bird specialist Ruud Vlek the bird has more in common with a buzzard (Buteo buteo). Yet, the large beak looks more like an eagle’s and the artist possibly combined elements from various species and various sources to create this hybrid creature. D’Hondecoeter did not often paint predatory birds. A rare spectacular example is the signed and dated 1673 canvas in the Louvre in which two eagles attack poultry, measuring approximately 2 x 2.5 meters. Both in this, in our work and in the majority of his other scenes with live animals we can admire the artist’s ability to conjure a narrative. Here we see the terrifying raptor chasing a barn swallow (Hirundo rustica), ready to clutch the small bird with his sharp paws. The eagle’s sudden appearance takes the snipe and finch by surprise and they attempt to flee.10 D’Hondecoeter’s scene resembles a snapshot and the very moment he chose to fix the action onto the canvas betrays the artist’s antenna for an arresting mise-en-scène. The theme of a bird of prey threatening or hunting other birds was treated by d’Hondecoeter a number of times, one other example is in the Städel in Frankfurt (inv. 1042), but in none of these examples did he set the scene up in the air as here.

D’Hondecoeter’s Eagle, a Swallow, a Snipe and a Finch in Flight is a supreme work by the artist. There is no clue as to who commissioned this work and whether it originally formed part of a larger program, which is rather likely. This painting may have decorated a ceiling or chimney. For a ‘zolderstuk’ or ceiling painting it is a bit small, although it could have been part of a series of ceiling paintings for one room separated by tie beams. Moreover, the composition is orientated in one direction whereas in the case of a ceiling painting one would expect a composition that radiates in all directions. It is therefore more likely to have served as a sopraporta (overdoor piece). Initially our painting was attributed to Peeter Boel (1622 – 1674) when it surfaced for the first time in modern times at auction in 1988. At that time the two birds flying below the eagle were overpainted. After this sale, a cleaning revealed the snipe and finch, and the signature. The picture then entered the collection of Robert Noortman (1946 – 2007), a leading dealer of Dutch and Flemish Old Masters and one of the founding fathers of The European Fine Art Fair (Tefaf), and hung in his residence ‘De Groote Mot’ – a late Renaissance castle in the Belgian village of Borgloon, until his death in 2007.