2022/1

RKD BULLETIN

An Unknown Painting by Melchior d’Hondecoeter

Lot Baumann

The artists’ biographer Arnold Houbraken described the painter Melchior d’Hondecoeter (1636-1695) as ‘De Fenix in zyn Konst’ [‘The Phoenix of his Art’].1 In the seventeenth century, Hondecoeter was the bird painter par excellence. Nowadays, he is best known for his painted wall hangings and park-like landscapes with exotic birds such as pelicans and cassowaries. His work was in great demand by the wealthy burgher of The Hague and Amsterdam as well as at the court of Stadholder-King William III. Hondecoeter also painted simpler poultry pieces featuring chickens, ducks and other birds, which he continued to produce throughout his career. With his fascinating compositions and lively scenes, Hondecoeter surpassed every other bird painter of his time. He was a prolific artist and today his impressive oeuvre counts over 200 works.

This article presents my research into an rather unknown poultry piece by this master [1]. In my bachelor thesis I described the painting in detail and linked it to a drawing in the Rijksprentenkabinet. Additional study of the painting allowed me to place it in the chronology of Hondecoeter’s oeuvre. Moreover, its relationship to the drawing has been further explored. How do the painting and the drawing relate to each other?

The Painter Melchior d’Hondecoeter (1636 - 1695)
Melchior d’Hondecoeter came from an artistic dynasty.2 His grandfather Gillis de Hondecoeter (c. 1575/1580-1638), a painter of rural landscapes, was part of the exodus of artists from Flanders who flocked to the Dutch Republic at the end of the sixteenth century.3 Melchior’s father and teacher Gijsbert de Hondecoeter (1604 -1653) followed in Gillis’s footsteps and worked as a landscape painter, later specialising in landscapes with animals and birds [2]. Melchior was apprenticed to his father until the latter’s death.4 He continued his training under his uncle Jan Baptist Weenix (1621-1659), known for Italianate landscapes and gamepieces [3].5 Melchior elaborated on these themes and succeeded in developing the poultry piece into a popular genre with the seventeenth-century public. After his apprenticeship, he settled in The Hague in 1658 and moved to Amsterdam five years later.6 There, his rustic poultry scenes gradually made way for park landscapes with fowl and vistas of neo-classical architecture. The birds in his paintings became increasingly exotic.7 They found favour among wealthy Amsterdammers, eager to decorate their luxurious country houses with such magnificent avian scenes. Hondecoeter’s career reached its peak in the 1670s, when he received several commissions from Stadholder William III. He made large decorative pieces for Soestdijk Hunting Lodge and the palaces Het Loo and Honselaarsdijk [4].8

Landscape with a Pigeon, Rooster and Hen and Various Waterfowl, formerly known as Hoenderhof [Poultry Yard]
On 14 October 1936, a painting known as ‘Hoenderhof’ by Melchior d’Hondecoeter went under the hammer of the Koninklijke Kunstzaal Kleykamp and auction house Van Marle en Bignell [5].9 The insolvency estate of the Amsterdam tobacco broker Matthias Knoops (1868 -1942) was sold at this auction.10 In addition of the painting by Hondecoeter, works by Jan Miense Molenaar and Simon Maris were also on offer. Hoenderhof ultimately fetched 1550 guilders.11 The painting has since been in private hands and was inherited by the current owner.

Landscape with a Pigeon, Rooster and Hen and Various Waterfowl is a wonderful example of how Hondecoeter was able to transform a simple subject into a very lively representation by means of an exciting composition. One of the first visual elements that catches the eye is the standing Bankiva rooster accompanied by a hen on the wall at the right [6]. The rooster turns its head towards a pigeon flying in from the upper left, thereby abruptly disturbing the peace of the pair on the wall [7]. The movement of the pigeon and the reaction of the rooster and hen serve to connect all the birds in the picture. It is precisely this kind of interaction that makes Hondecoeter’s bird pieces so fascinating. The black sea duck in the foreground leads the viewer into the scene. While its beak points at the rooster, it has turned its head In such a way that it looks straight at the viewer. A duckling with spread wings to the right of the duck observes the commotion [8]. The strong contrasts between light and dark, or chiaroscuro, further emphasise the tension within the composition and create depth. The chiaroscuro brings the birds to the foreground: they stand out against the dark woodland in the background.

1
Melchior d’Hondecoeter
Landscape with a Pigeon, Rooster and Hen and Various Waterfowl c. 1658-1667
oil on canvas, 113 x 144.5 cm
The Netherlands, private collection
Photo RKD/Vicky Foster

2
Gijsbert de Hondecoeter
Waterfowl 1652
oil on panel, 59 x 104 cm
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

3
Jan Baptist Weenix
Dead birds, a brandy bowl and a wine glass on a pillow c. 1650-1659
oil on canvas, 64.8 x 54.8 cm
Sale Londen (Sotheby’s) 26 April 2001, lot 91

4
Melchior d’Hondecoeter
A Pelican and other Birds near a Pool, known as ‘The Floating Feather’’ c. 1680
oil on canvas, 159 x 144 cm
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

5
Poultry Yard in the auction catalog of Kunstzaal Kleykamp and Van Marle & Bignell 14 October 1936
black and white reproduction, collection RKD


6
Melchior d’Hondecoeter
Detail of fig. 1 with a cock and a hen
Photo RKD/Vicky Foster

7
Melchior d’Hondecoeter
Detail of fig. 1 with a pigeon
Photo RKD/Vicky Foster


8
Melchior d’Hondecoeter
Detail of fig. 1 with duck chicks
Photo RKD/Vicky Foster

9
Melchior d’Hondecoeter
Detail of fig 1 with a turkey
Photo RKD/Vicky Foster


The overall facture is fluid and smooth. Hondecoeter applied the oil paint to the canvas in several thin layers. In some places the ground layer shines through the surface paint in places. Many of the birds are swiftly painted, with visible strokes and daubs. This is clear to see in the Bankiva rooster and hen on the wall. This type of rooster is one of Hondecoeter’s specialities and appears in the same or a different pose in dozens of his paintings. Here, it is depicted in bright colours while sounding the alarm, its open beak raised high to ward off the intruder. The gold-coloured saddle feathers on its back are painted in individual strokes. Under the quills, green is subtly introduced where the wings and the tail begin. The rendering with an extremely fine brush of the down fluffing up between the green is unparalleled. Hondecoeter used graduating colours to pick out the fine lines of the plumage where the sunlight hits the rooster. Its naturally shiny plumage contrasts sharply with the female’s matte plumage. Hondecoeter depicted its body with coarse brushstrokes, applying finer touches and highlights only in its head. Here, Hondecoeter captured the light falling on her back by means of delicate, smooth and broad brushstrokes.

Hondecoeter applied the final touches to the canvas in thick splotches. This can be seen, for example, in the rooster’s wattles and the turkey’s head [9]. Although Hondecoeter painted quickly and smoothly, he nevertheless succeeded in reproducing the patterns of the plumage very faithfully. Even now we can clearly discern which bird species are depicted. Bird expert and historian Ruud Vlek was immediately able to identify all the birds in the painting.12 For example, the mother duck with her five chicks is a Bali duck, and on the branch to the left in the tree is a cedar waxwing [10].

The vegetation flanking the scene on the left and right is rendered in even greater detail. All the leaves and flowers are painted with great precision with a small brush [11]. This so-called ‘forest still life’ is strongly reminiscent of the work of Otto Marseus van Schrieck (1619/1620-1678), the painter who introduced this genre, the sottobosco, to the Northern Netherlands, one of whose works was in Hondecoeter’s possession.13 The moss, a pattern of yellowish, thick dots of paint in the foreground and on the tree trunks, is striking. Hondecoeter used a sponge or cloth for this, a technique he often employed in his work. For this, he undoubtedly looked to Marseus van Schrieck.14

The Landscape with a Pigeon, Rooster and Hen and Various Waterfowl does not feature the exotic birds from foreign countries that Hondecoeter would focus on later in his career. The apparently domestic fowl in this work consists largely of specially bred ornamental birds. In the distance, we see a neoclassical villa and fountain basking in an Italianate glow reminiscent of works by his uncle Jan Baptist Weenix. I therefore believe that our picture was painted in the transitional phase from his earlier rustic farmyards to the later classicist gardens. Its style is also less refined compared to his later work. For this reason, the painting can be regarded as originating in his The Hague or early Amsterdam years and be provisionally dated to circa 1658-1667, the period from the moment he registered in The Hague until three years after his arrival in Amsterdam.

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10
1. Domestic pigeon (Columba livia domestica), 2. Bankiva rooster (Gallus gallus), cock and hen, 3. Wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo), 4. Common scoter (Melanitta nigra), 5. Eurasian wigeon (Anas penelope), 6. Bali duck (Anas platyrhynchos domestica), 7. Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula), 8. Greylag goose (Anser anser), 9. Cedar waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum)
Illustration RKD/Vicky Foster

11
Melchior d’Hondecoeter
Detail of fig. 1 with forest still life
Photo RKD/Vicky Foster

The Art of Repetition
Thanks to Houbraken, we know of a striking anecdote regarding a trained rooster Hondecoeter is said to have owned. He writes: ‘that he only needed to put it by his easel and then, with his small maulstick, arrange the head upwards or downwards, the body turned to the left or right, or with flapping wings as if moving ahead, which would then remain in that position until his master, getting up, indicated that for the moment he had served out his time standing that way.’15 Nowadays, we have more concrete knowledge about Hondecoeter’s working methods, owing in part to restoration research on the bird paintings he produced for William III.16 Hondecoeter regularly repeated entire scenes from one painting in a subsequent work and made copies of compositions with minimal variations. In Landscape with a Pigeon, Rooster and Hen and Various Waterfowl, too, he made use of recurring motifs. The painting exhibits many parallels with his Birds in a Parkland Setting [12]. Although this is a smaller and vertical work, here, too, a pigeon interrupts a calm scene on the water’s edge. Some ducks, such as the sleeping wigeon in the centre of the canvas, are painted identically in both works. As in our painting, the artist placed a large duck in the foreground looking out at the viewer. However, he varied the motif by turning the bird’s head and giving it alternative plumage.

Another work related to the painting is an oil sketch of ten chicks in different poses [13]. In this Study of Ducklings, the birds have been worked out in detail, and reiterations of five of them can be found in Landscape with a Pigeon. Such oil sketches served as models for larger paintings. This is confirmed by the fact that the proportions of the chicks in the oil sketch correspond to those in the painting.

A Drawing in the Rijksprentenkabinet
Research into the Landscape with a Pigeon, Rooster and Hen and Various Waterfowl led to a striking find in the Rijksmuseum’s Print Room. It is a study of two peacocks on the front and ten different birds on the back, with a composition sketch at the lower left attributed to Melchior d’Hondecoeter. The verso, titled Sketches of a Composition and Various Birds, betrays a strong affinity with Landscape with a Pigeon [14]. Although thousands of drawings from the seventeenth century have come down to us, few of them can be directly linked to a painting.17 It is therefore even more remarkable that we can match the drawing from the Print Room to the work under discussion.

Drawings have always played an important role in a painter’s studio. In the seventeenth century an artist’s training was based on drawing lessons and copying increasingly complex work by their master and confreres.18 Not without reason did the painter and art theorist Karel van Mander call drawing ‘The father of painting’ in his 1604 Schilderboeck.19 Artists made drawings throughout their lives for practice and preparation, but also to build up a store of motifs. These drawings were kept in albums in the studio and consulted at will.20 Reusing motifs allowed them to quickly devise new compositions and work more efficiently.21

Drawings directly related to paintings can be divided into two categories: compositions affording an idea of the intention of the work as a whole, and detail studies of important parts of the final painting. Within these categories there are numerous variations depending on the exact function of the drawings and the working method of the artist. Artists developed their own methods to suit their style and studio practice.22 However, there are also drawings after compositions made by others. A closer look at our study sheet suggests that it belongs to the latter category. There are various indications that the drawing is not a preliminary study but follows the painting.

12
Melchior d’Hondecoeter
Birds in a Parkland Setting c. 1658-1667
oil on canvas 100.3 x 92.7 cm
Buenos Aires, private collection
Courtesy of the owner

13
Melchior d’Hondecoeter
Study of Ducklings c. 1669
oil on canvas, 32 x 40 cm
Private collection
Photo Galerie Koller

14
Sketches of a Composition and Various Birds
red chalk on paper 371 x 313 mm
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, as by Melchior d’Hondecoeter

In Sketches of a Composition and Various Birds, the individual birds are fleetly laid down on the paper in red chalk; the composition sketch in the lower left is rapidly executed as well. Unfortunately, the sketch was cut down and that passage is no longer entirely visible. Yet upon closer inspection, the eye immediately spots the rooster on the wall. The turkey and the waxwing on the branch at the upper left recur in the same position in the painting. Because of the drawing’s sketchy style, the similarities only become clear when the painting is held up to the study sheet for reference.

What is immediately striking about the composition in the study sheet is the absence of the pigeon, which plays a significant role in the painting. In the study, however, it is prominently depicted as a separate bird. The poultry, on the other hand, while featuring in the compositional sketch, are missing as separate figures. These deviations indicate that the draughtsman must have seen the birds of the composition sketch and the figure studies together in a single representation. The draughtsman also copied the proportions of the painting. This is evident from a comparison of the proportions of the individual birds in the study sheet and those of the birds in the painting. The three ducklings in the drawing turned out to be 2.5 times smaller. These findings raise the question of why Hondecoeter would want to make a study of birds that he himself had already painted. Or was the draughtsman someone else?

The depiction on the front of the study sheet points in the same direction. Two Peacocks is beautifully executed and far less sketchy than the individual birds on the verso; however, the left bird is missing a leg [15]. Marrigje Rikken found the same peacocks in two other paintings. In Birds in a Park, the missing leg has disappeared behind a white mother hen; in the other painting, from the circle of Hondecoeter, the leg is hidden behind a tree trunk [16].23 Since it is unusual for an animal not to be depicted in its entirely in such a figure study, Rikken suggested that it was a copy sketch made by an assistant or pupil in Hondecoeter’s studio.24 The assumption that Hondecoeter used assistants in his studio is based on his prolific output and the varying quality of his paintings.25 Unfortunately, nothing else is known about this studio practice. We only have the name of one of his pupils: Willem van Royen.26

Conclusion
The Landscape with a Pigeon, Rooster and Hen and Various Waterfowl is typical of Hondecoeter’s fast and efficient working method. He regularly reused motifs in new compositions. By studying the work thoroughly, I was able to date it to his The Hague or early Amsterdam period between 1658 and 1667. In these years, Hondecoeter developed an increasingly elegant style of painting, with more exotic birds and lavish gardens and architecture.

A comparison of the painting with the sketch, which features the composition and a few details, suggests that the latter did not serve as a preliminary study but was a copy of a painting. The draughtsman of the study sheet sketched various types of birds from the original scene and would have used the composition as an aide-memoire for their position in the painting. I have argued that the drawing follows the painting, but what does this mean for the drawing’s current attribution to Hondecoeter? Could it have been made by one of his assistants or pupils? Or did a follower of Hondecoeter who admired his work copy it? As to who made this drawing and whether it originated in the studio remain conjecture for the time being.

15
Two Peacocks
red chalk on paper, 371 x 313 mm
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, as by Melchior d’Hondecoeter

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16
Melchior d’Hondecoeter
Birds in a Park
oil on canvas, 135 x 155 cm
Sint Petersburg, The Hermitage


Notes

1 A. Houbraken, De groote schouburgh der Nederlantsche konstschilders en schilderessen, Amsterdam 1718, p. 75.

2 Most authors take the artist’s year of birth as being 1636, given by Houbraken in De groote schouburgh der Nederlantsche konstschilders en schilderessen. In his article, Van den Wijngaart notes that this date cannot be determined with certainty. The author mentions the document compiled by notary J. Lissant in The Hague that was recorded by Abraham Bredius. It contains a statement of debt dated 9 March 1662, in which the artist is said to be ‘out 26 jaeren’ (26 years old). Accordingly, Hondecoeter could also have been born in 1635. There are no documents that mention his exact date of birth. M. van den Wijngaart, ‘Melchior d’Hondecoeter (1636?-1695) I,’ Antiek 29 (1994) 4, p. 9. See also: A. Houbraken, De groote schouburgh der Nederlantsche konstschilders en schilderessen, Amsterdam 1718, p. 68.

3 J. Briels, Vlaamse schilders in de noordelijke Nederlanden in het begin van de Gouden Eeuw, 1585-1630, Haarlem, 1987.

4 M. Rikken, Melchior d’Hondecoeter. Vogelschilder, Amsterdam 2008, p. 8.

5 M. Rikken, Melchior d’Hondecoeter. Vogelschilder, Amsterdam 2008, p. 11.

6 F. Obreen, Archief voor Nederlandsche kunstgeschiedenis. Verzameling van meerendeels onuitgegeven berichten en mededeelingen betreffende Nederlandsche schilders, plaatsnijders, beeldhouwers, bouwmeesters […], 7 vols., Rotterdam 1877-1890, vol. 4 (1881), p. 70.

7 E. Vlieger, ‘Melchior d’Hondecoeter (1636-1695), der beste mahler umb vögeln zu mahlen,’ Kunstschrift Geverfde Vogels 39 (1995) 4, p. 16.

8 Melchior d’Hondecoeter (1636-1695), der beste mahler umb vögeln zu mahlen,’ Kunstschrift Geverfde Vogels 39 (1995) 4, p. 20.

9 Antieke Meubelen, antiek porselein en aardewerk, oude en moderne schilderijen, tapijten, loopers, gordijnen, kronen, haarden, kristal en glaswerk, grote collectie zilverwerken…[etc], sales cat. The Hague (Kunsthal Kleykamp/Van Marle & Bignell) 14 October 1936, no. 266.

10 ‘Faillissementen,’ De Tijd. Godsdienstig-staatkundig dagblad 15 May 1938, p. 2. Knoops’ biography and profession have been compiled from archival sources: Amsterdam City Archives, archive cards, no. 30238, inv. no. 437; The Hague City Archives, Hague population register (family cards), no. 0354-01.936.

11 See the newspaper clipping included in the sales catalogue Antieke Meubelen, antiek porselein en aardewerk, oude en moderne schilderijen, tapijten, loopers, gordijnen, kronen, haarden, kristal en glaswerk, grote collectie zilverwerken…[etc], The Hague (Kunsthal Kleykamp/Van Marle & Bignell) 14 October 1936.

12 E-mail from R. Vlek to L. Baumann, 5 April 2020.

13 Hondecoeter’s 1695 estate inventory lists ‘Een [schilderij] van Otto Marseus’ ['A [painting] by Otto Marseus']. A. Bredius, Künstler-Inventare; Urkunden zur Geschichte der holländischen Kunst des XVIten, XVIIten und XVIIIten Jahrhunderts, 8 vols., The Hague 1915-1921, vol. 4 (1917), p. 1211.

14 M. Rikken, Melchior d’Hondecoeter. Vogelschilder, Amsterdam 2008, p. 57.

15 A. Houbraken, De groote schouburgh der Nederlantsche konstschilders en schilderessen, Amsterdam, vol. 3 1718, p. 72.

16 In 2007, three works from the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam were restored: The Menagerie, c. 1690, The Contemplative Magpie and A Hunter’s Bag on a Terrace. Much was revealed about the ground, signatures were discovered, and it turned out that the use of standard poses of various birds notwithstanding, Hondecoeter continued to experiment on the canvas. M. Rikken, Melchior d’Hondecoeter. Vogelschilder, Amsterdam 2008, p. 55.

17 W. Robinson and P. Schatborn, ‘Drawing into Painting: an overview,’ in: G. Luijten, P. Schatbron and A. Wheelock Jr. (ed.), Drawings for Paintings in the Age of Rembrandt, exhib. cat. Washington (National Gallery of Art) 2016, p. 5.

18 W. Robinson and P. Schatborn, ‘Drawing into Painting: an overview,’ in: G. Luijten, P. Schatborn and A. Wheelock Jr. (ed.), Drawings for Paintings in the Age of Rembrandt, exhib. cat. Washington (National Gallery of Art) 2016, p. 5.

19 K. van Mander, ‘Den Grondt der Edel vry Schilder-const. Waer in haer ghestalt, aerdt ende wesen, de leer-lustighe Jeught in verscheyden Deelen in Rijm-dicht wort voor ghedraghen,’ in: Het schilder-boeck (facsimile of the Haarlem 1603-1604 edition), Utrecht 1969, f. 8r.

20 W. Robinson and P. Schatborn, ‘Drawing into Painting: an overview,’ in: G. Luijten, P. Schatborn and A. Wheelock Jr. (ed.), Drawings for Paintings in the Age of Rembrandt, exhib. cat. Washington (National Gallery of Art) 2016, p. 5.

21 L. Wepler, ‘Acquisitions: Paintings,’ The Rijksmuseum Bulletin 63 (2015) 1, p. 96.

22 W. Robinson and P. Schatborn, ‘Drawing into Painting: an overview,’ in: G. Luijten, P. Schatborn and A. Wheelock Jr. (ed.), Drawings for Paintings in the Age of Rembrandt, exhib. cat. Washington (National Gallery of Art) 2016, p. 5.

23 Painting in the collection of S.J. Count of Limburg Stirum, Olst, 1938.

24 M. Rikken, Melchior d’Hondecoeter. Vogelschilder, Amsterdam 2008, p. 53.

25 J.A. Spicer and R.C. Mühlberger, ‘Hondecoeter, d' family [de Hondecoutre; de Hondekoter],’ Grove Dictionary of art, 2003 Grove Art Online.

26 A. Houbraken, De groote schouburgh der Nederlantsche konstschilders en schilderessen, Amsterdam 1718, p. 74.

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