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HUNTING MUSEUMS OF FRANCE


Cultural Heritage
Something For Hunters to Appreciate About Effete Old France

Years ago I raised my hand at a Palm Beach auction meant to support the creation of a world-class “Museum of Hunting and the Horse.” I got a bargain limited edition Manfred Schatz, but 20 years later the U.S. still hasn’t gotten a museum that demonstrates how much our cultural heritage owes to tens of thousands of years as a hunting species. By the cultural heritage of hunting I don’t mean roomfuls of stuffed animals and a safari jacket. I mean the centuries-spanning output of artists, craftsmen, inventors and visionary collectors, all inspired by hunting.

This means that if you want to visit museums dedicated to hunting—beautifully displayed arms and game-killing inventions of every sort, tip-top paintings and sculptures, regal table settings, battle-exposed knives and swords and ingenious accoutrements of all sorts—you will need to visit Europe, especially France, but also Germany and Austria. One trip and you realize how far hunting museums in America have to go.

You may also realize there are things you didn’t know about the cultural heritage of hunting that are well worth knowing, beginning with the story of Saint Hubert, the Patron Saint of Hunters.

On Good Friday in 683, Hubert, the bloodthirsty son of the Duke of Aquitaine, was hotly pursuing the finest stag of his career when it turned to defend itself. To reprimand Hubert for hunting on the day of Christ’s death, a vision of the crucifix appeared between the stag’s ten-pointed antlers, and Hubert became an evangelist on the spot. All Europe celebrates his mass on November 3 with smartly uniformed hunters accompanied by yelping hounds and sounding horns. The services are as moving as Taps played beneath a waving American flag, and many hunters are seen discreetly wiping away tears. St. Hubert’s conversion has been immortalized over the centuries in dozens of fine paintings.

If you see a huge painting of a terrified wild boar or wolf with a pack of snarling dogs at its heels, it’s probably the work of either of the two rival court artists whose names appear in bold in the history of French sporting art: François Desportes (1661-1743) and Jean-Baptiste Oudry (1686-1775). Oudry probably holds a stronger position in art history, although Desportes is appreciated for his large dramatic compositions, which are often structured around subtle architectural details like fallen garden walls or the sharp play of light on a strongly developed background landscape. Desportes’ keen sense of observation and sensitivity to animals is obvious in the accuracy of both their expression and stance.

Dog lovers will enjoy studying the many paintings of the various royal hounds like “Blondie” and “Diane,” whose genealogy is as complicated as that of European royalty itself. Each reign, from Charlemagne to Napoleon, had its favorite breed, forever evolving from crossbreeding experiments and introductions from abroad. If Louis XIV’s hounds are the best known, this is likely due to a series of exquisite studies and portraits of the royal bitches by Desportes.

Oudry is considered the more “decorative” of the two artists, with lively colors and a sense of scale and design suitable to the huge task of decorating the endless walls and corridors of royal and princely chateaux masquerading as hunting chalets, like Chantilly, some 25 miles north of Paris, which today also houses an outstanding Living Museum of the Horse, much like the one we’d hope to have in America. Both Desportes and Oudry are very appealing and rarely disappoint.

You’d have to visit a dozen good museums in the States to see the equivalent sporting arms in any good European museum.

For example, the Pauilhac Collection in Paris consists of hunting swords and over 150 antique firearms. Hunting spears, swords and knives were hardly distinguishable from war weaponry until the 17 th century, when etched or engraved hunting motifs began to appear on the blades. In the 18 th century, antler and ebony grips became increasingly elaborate, inlaid with pearls, ivory and agate. Some knives carried ingenious piggyback cases containing skinning utensils and cutlery; others have a “billette” or crossbar to prevent the hunter from following the thrust into his prey’s embrace. Handles shaped like animals are typical of the Napoleonic Era swords.

You’ll also see conscientiously arranged displays showing the evolution and refinement of every possible firing mechanism, whether German, Italian, French or English. The entire history of firearms is arranged in a nutshell here: 16 th and 17 th century matchlock (à mèche) guns; interior and exterior wheel-lock (à rouet) guns; 17 th and 18 th century flintlocks (à silex) guns; and 19 th-century percussion guns.

In the same museum is Napoleon III’s carbine, which fires seven shots at a time, and the hunting carbine given by Napoleon to General Comte Rapp, created in 1809 by Nicolas-Noel Boutet (1761-1833), the famous Imperial Court of Versailles gunmaker, along with every kind of experiment involving rotating, triangular and square barrels.

Yesterday, today and tomorrow, French hunters yearn to be vetted into the corps of the Officiers de Louveterie – the Officers of Wolf Hunters. These are the Navy Seals of hunters, the guys you see lined along the highway when a tiger escapes from a zoo or when it’s time to slaughter hundreds of rabies-infected foxes in a 50-mile swath of Alsace-Lorraine.



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Charlemagne created the first wolf control unit way back in 813. The all-time favorite Lieutenant of the Louveterie is the Norman count who, imprisoned during the French Revolution, was released by popular demand to continue his noble extermination. The record wolfer is the Poitou vicomte, who prior to 1900 killed over 900 wolves, a record that will undoubtedly remain unbroken, as France’s last all natural wolf is believed to have been shot in 1926.

The Louveterie was at its glory under Louis XIV, dissolved by Louis XVI, reestablished by Napoleon and still very active today, and its memorabilia usually has its fair share of display cases in any hunting museum.

Also getting a share of display space are collections of the orchestral instrument we know as the French horn--the four-meter, 15-centimeter circular (one-and-a-half turns) horn carried on the left shoulder to communicate commands between hunters that became popular under Louis XIV.

Hunters and horn blowing date back to the Greek and Romans. First made of animal horn, then ivory and finally metal, by the middle ages, the horn and its sound had become inseparable from the hunt. In a European concert hall, you can often pick out the hunters; they perk up miraculously the minute they recognize a hunting theme or fanfare in an opera or symphony.

Venery is the hunt that uses hounds to locate, pursue and put to bay or kill game; it is also the source of the word “venison.” Hunts usual specialize in one particular tradition: hunting on foot for hare or fox, or on horseback for roe deer, wild boar or red stag.

First described by Xenophon around 400 B.C., the customs and traditions of venery have evolved over the centuries, as have the equipment and accoutrements, until the image of the hunter becomes inseparable from his eager hounds, his characteristic uniform, knife and hunting horn, and often, but not always, his horse. In today’s Europe, venery is still practiced only in Belgium, France and Portugal and is fighting for its life against animal rightists in Great Britain and Ireland. Eliminating it as a hunting tradition would be like Catholicism abandoning the Holy Ghost.

Venery was the pursuit of virtually all the kings of France. It resulted in the commissioning of hundreds of hunt-related paintings; the development of new sporting arms to be carried on horseback; the designing of distinguished uniforms; the breeding of new species of hounds; and the introduction of specialized music to celebrate the hunt – little or any of which we have, or had, in America.

Maybe that’s why we don’t have hunting museums on a European scale.

Perhaps after seeing the finest of sporting art, including works by Rubens, Cranach, Corot, Rembrandt, Chardin and even Monet, American hunters will decide it really is time to establish a hunting and sporting art museum on our shores. If these paintings serve as a sharp reminder of what sporting art is not today, they should also tell us what they could be: Winslow Homer alone is the perfect seed from which to grow.

Images of the hunt scratched on the walls of French caves by Paleolithic hunters 40,000 years ago are among our civilization’s earliest sporting art, and it’s obvious the New World can’t possibly catch up with the old in the heritage department. But at least we can learn from old, decrepit Europe that you can make a great hunting museum with the culture that we do have, hardly a dead animal on display.

Brooke still feels awe at the spectacle of barking hounds and sounding horns that accompany the streak of red cutting through the Sunday forest – and at its ability to actually bring French traffic to a respectful halt.

Maison de la Chasse et de la Nature
Hôtel de Guenegaud
60, rue des Archives
Paris 75003
Right in the heart of Paris,in a great neighborhood to stroll or dine in, this beautifully housed collection should be on the itinerary of any hunter visiting France.

Musée International de la Chasse
Chateau de Gien
Loiret 45500
Located several hours from Paris along the Loire river in one of the nicest regions of France (plus the Gien pottery factory offering great discounts is just down the road), this is an impressive museum on a grand scale.

Musée de la Venerie
Chateau Royal
Senlis 60300
With Chateau Chantilly and its Museum of the Living Horse just down the road, Senlis itself deserves a visit; it’s also a great place to stop for lunch. Unfortunately, there is no train to Senlis, which is probably the secret to its well-preserved charm.

 

 

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