Melchior d'Hondecoeter








The Menagerie, about 1690.

(Click to enlarge)

Melchior d'Hondecoeter was a painter of animals, representing the fourth generation of painters. He began his studies with his father and later with his uncle after his father died.

         When Hondecoeter was in his early twenties, he moved to The Hague and became a member of the painter’s academy, moving to Amsterdam four years later. His career began by producing sea pieces, scenes with fish and other marine creatures. Later he switched to birds and became well known as a bird painter. His first paintings were still-lifes of dead game and hunting accessories with a live bird or two viewing the scene. Hondecoeter admired Frans Snyders’ works and was likely influenced by Snyder’s still-lifes.

Later Hondecoeter painted live birds, mainly barnyard species like hens and turkeys in a classical or Italianate setting. A number of paintings portrayed cockfights, sometimes with other birds, even pigeons and ducks, entering the fray. Exotic birds entered the paintings in subsequent years, the subjects a mixture of chickens and ducks with pelicans, cranes and cassowaries.

Melchior d'Hondecoeter was apparently the only painter in the Netherlands who seemed to appreciate birds as living beings with feelings. Other painters only saw color. Most painters before him seemed to use birds only as additions to the landscape; Hondecoeter made them the focus of his painting. He designed birds as the centerpiece and included a rich landscape around and behind.

In The Crow Exposed he demonstrates his ability to show the details of each figure. The story of the picture is that the God Jupiter declares that he will anoint the most beautiful bird as king of all birds. The crow, being black, fears he has no chance, so he finds the fallen feathers of colorful birds and dons them. As Jupiter is just about to crown the crow as king, the other birds attack the crow and expose him. The feathers and beaks of the birds all have different shades of red or pink, colors that connect the scattered birds to each other and to the center with the bright red rooster’s head.

Hondecoeter often composed his paintings by putting some figures in the center foreground, with others entering from the sides. He was skilled at depicting the exact likeness of birds but also giving the birds human-like expressions. In his painting Birds around a Balustrade, with the Amsterdam City Hall in the Background, the main figure, the peacock, looks very much like he is berating the owl on a perch while the peacock’s mate, the peahen, keeps a low profile; the owl looks taken aback at the verbal abuse coming from the peacock. The smaller birds are hardly noticeable and do not pay much attention to this interaction.

The Menagerie, painted about 1690, shows a number of exotic birds – Sulfur-crested Cockatoos from Australia, a Ring-necked Parakeet from sub-Saharan Africa and southern Asia, a Gray Parrot from central Africa, a Northern Cardinal from north America, a few other smaller birds and a couple of monkeys. All of the animals seem wary of something, either in front or to the sides of the painting. It’s hard to tell if they are suspicious or frightened. In any case the picture exemplifies the emotions Hondecoeter was able to imbue in his subjects.

Many of Hondecoeter’s canvases were originally designed to hang above fireplaces and doors in well-to-do neighborhoods in Amsterdam.