The art of flying
Seven paintings by Melchior d’Hondecoeter (1636-1695), the most renowned Dutch painter of 17th century ‘bird pieces’, will be exhibited from 27 May to 26 October 2009 in the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam Schiphol. Never before had an artist succeeded in portraying birds in such a lively way. Hondecoeter seemed to capture the birds in a snapshot, as if they could seemingly fly away at any second.
In his time, Hondecoeter was already highly acclaimed for his vivid, colourful depictions of birds. He painted still lifes of game bags with dead birds, poultry yards with chickens as the main focus and park landscapes with exotic birds. He created and developed the last theme himself. Hondecoeter’s paintings featured geese (Brent, Egyptian and Red-Breasted), partridges, doves, sparrows, Golden Orioles, peacocks, but also African Black-Crowned Cranes, Australian Yellow-Crested Cockatoos, Asian Sarus Cranes and even an Indonesian Purple-Naped Lory and two Grey-Headed Lovebirds from Madagascar. Most birds painted by his predecessors were depicted in static poses against the scenery, but in Hondecoeter’s paintings their positions look very natural. Furthermore, the paintings show the animals interacting with one another, engaging in exciting confrontations..
It is not surprising then, that Hondecoeter’s work was extremely popular amongst the wealthy families of his time. Due in large part to the economic prosperity of the Golden Age, there were quite a few nouveau-riche families, who wanted to show off their high status within society. Hunting and keeping unusual poultry and exotic birds in aviaries had previously been enjoyed exclusively by royalty and nobility. Therefore, paintings of game bags and exotic birds were also a status symbol. Furthermore, the exotic bird pieces by Hondecoeter made ideal wall decorations in the lavish interiors of the country and grand town houses of the wealthy. Hondecoeter’s fame reached a pinnacle with several paintings commissioned by Stadholder-King William III during the last quarter of the 17th century.