It must have been a 17 th-century Dutch still life that triggered my addiction to art. The technical virtuosity of their optically playful imitations of tables of fruit, burnished pewter, and shimmering Venetian glassware would have floored me. So would have any of Jan Weenix’s (1640-1719) hunting still lifes. Their surprising mixed-bags of fallen herons and hares, theatrically laid out in the bewitching landscape of a chateau park, might explain my special attachment to “game pieces,” which most art-lovers ignore or disparage for depicting dead animals.
In ranking the hierarchy of subjects worthy for painting, even the first Dutch art theorist, Rembrandt’s own student, declared historical or mythological figures in archeological settings number one, followed in order by pastoral romances, boisterous tavern scenes, landscapes, and then portraits. Still lifes—because they portrayed “soulless” objects like flowers and fishes—finished last.
Yet still lifes fulfill Horace’s dictum that art must be both instructive and entertaining, and the Italian Renaissance principle that the primary purpose of painting is to imitate nature. But popularity won out over theories, and starting in the 1640s some 70 Flemish and Dutch artists produced game pieces; alas, only a dozen are still well known today.
Although the Dutch word “stilleven” came into use in the same period, the genre’s roots date back to Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) and Lucas Cranach, (1472-1553), and farther still to the mosaics of ancient Rome. Precisely painted still lifes usually portray an ennobled reality—or a distorted one—and some critics eagerly point out whenever seasonal flowers couldn’t possibly have filled the same vase. But realism is a relative term, for allegorical Dutch realism (e.g., using skulls to convey the transitory nature of life) has little to do with today’s non-contemplative Photorealism.
It’s important to remember that what we think of as the Netherlands, or Low Countries, actually comprised two distinct cultures. There was the Flemish south, including Antwerp, Haarlem, and Utrecht, which was captured and claimed in 1585 by the Catholic Spanish-Austrian Habsburgs, causing many Protestant artists to flee north and leaving behind a market driven by church commissions for altars and saints. The more Protestant Dutch or North Republic was characterized by its wealth-creating capitalism, which meant that business, not religion, heavily influenced art.
The celebration of material prosperity and exaggerated abundance as depicted in Flemish and Dutch still lifes of market scenes and laid tables marked the end of the devastation and famine of Europe’s last religious conflict, the Thirty Years War, in 1648. This neatly coincides with Jan Weenix’s birth in 1640 and with artists’ increasing social status as they become independent masters and court artists for nobility abroad rather than simple members, along with potters, engravers, and booksellers, of the St. Luke’s Guild, which tightly controlled quality and production. His artist father, Jan Baptiste Weenix (1621-1663), earned enough money from his game pieces and Italianate landscapes to purchase a gentleman’s country manor.
Although Jan Weenix was a northerner (and game pieces were actually more popular in the south), he didn’t hesitate to follow in the footsteps of Flemish hunting still life painters like Frans Snyder (1579-1657) and Jan Fyt (1611-1661) with his own very large and extravagant paintings.
Hunting rights then were restricted to nobles, knights, high officers of the state, and high clergy, who hotly pursued red stags, wild boars, roe deer, black grouse, herons, swans, spoonbills, cormorants, and pheasants, to name a few. Yet far more game pieces were sold than there ever were hunters.
So who purchased Weenix’s monumental fantasies of swans and hares suspended from classical fountains or cherub-studded pedestals? They weren’t commissions commemorating a specific hunt, or morality tales on blood sports, or demonstrations of putting food from the field onto the plate, as in works of partridges on rough tables in the company of cabbages. Weenix’s idealized specimens had no exit holes or blood, were displayed to show off their natural beauty among fine hunting weapons and expensive accessories, and were intended, in fact, to represent the wealth of the owner.
Game pieces were status symbols for the bourgeois painting-purchasing class to hang in their country estates, because even the minor gentry were allowed to hunt only small game, such as ducks and rabbits. To rich burghers, hunting still lifes provided a prestigious image of an aristocratic sport; they were substitutes for reality (like most still lifes) that helped them imitate the manners of French court life in Versailles, which was all the rage.