June 20, 2014

Gallery Birds: A Game of...Game?

Generally speaking, pre-Nineteenth century art isn't my thing. Finding myself trapped in an encyclopedic art museum, working my way through those earlier European galleries with my art-loving wife, can get a little....well, it's like how she feels when she comes birdwatching with me. Lately though I've been finding some interest in it by combining our interests and doing a little birdwatching in the four hundred-year old painting galleries.

Still Life with Grapes and Game, Frans Snyders, c. 1630

There is no shortage of still lifes in European painting, including many with game birds, from the Sixteenth century on up to the Nineteenth (still lifes have continued after that, but with birds...not so typically). While I don't get as much of a kick out of looking at dead birds as I do live ones, I did find this helped hold my interest in the early going of our recent tour of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

Still Life with Grapes and Game (detail)
I took photos of just about every bird I saw in the NGA, just for the hell of it, but there were a few paintings that stood out for me, as much (if not more) for the subject matter as the technique. Frans Snyders' Still Life with Grapes and Game was one. On the table beneath the overflowing bowls of grapes and figs, you can find a Pheasant, a Woodcock or Snipe, and a couple of what I think must be Willow Ptarmigan - all fairly typical still-life game birds - but you can also see a number of songbirds tied to a split pole. I am not well versed in my European birds, but I definitely see the red breasts of male Bullfinches, a female Chaffinch at the front right, possibly a sparrow in there toward the front and that bird on the left looks a little off foreither Great Tit or female Bullfinch, but I can't see what else it's supposed to be be if not one of those...I guess I'm getting carried away with the IDs, sorry.

This presentation of tying the birds to a stick like that is what really struck me. In my short life as an ornithophile, I've never seen that before. I suppose that's how a songbird hunter would bring home his trophies. Perhaps they still do in some of those barbaric songbird-hunting parts of Europe?

Among the other paintings that enabled me to accompany my wife through those early galleries without falling into a boredom-induced coma was Pieter Claesz's Still Life with Peacock Pie (1627).

Game birds like peacock, pheasant, partridge, and evidently even swans and herons - the latter's flavour I would think being seriously questionable - were often recreated on top of pies as ornament and identification. In a frequently-cited example, "Partryche and Pecock enhackyll" (presumably a type of pie) was served at the coronation of eight-year old King Henry VI in 1429. Click here to see a photo of a recreation of a pheasant pie.

It has also been suggested that this practice of recreating the pie-contained bird on top of the pie was the inspiration for those Victorian-ish bird-shaped porcelain pie vents that have recently been revived to be sold in every kitchen store. I'm not so sure of that one, but I do like to report on my findings, particularly where it relates to pie. And it so often seems to around here.

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