Escaped from Noach’s ark
How depicting animals came into its own
In the sixteenth century in the Southern Netherlands, a number of new art genres developed, including depicting animals. PhD Marrigje Rikken investigated this development.
1550. Antwerp – then still part of the Netherlands – one of the most important centers of Europe. For trade, but also for arts. The city had since 1531 the first art fair in Europe, and rich traders bought art for collections.
In the preceding Middle Ages, the church had been the largest client for artists. “From these Bible stories developed in the Southern Netherlands of the sixteenth century new artistic genres,” says art historian Marrigje Rikken. “Landscapes, still lifes and depictions of animals. My PhD research focuses on the latter genre. Struggling to free itself from biblical paintings of Noah’s Ark, or the Garden of Eden. That religious motive moves increasingly into the background. Later it is no longer necessary, because the genre is established. Buyers do not necessarily want an ark, they just want an attractive painting with lots of animals on it.”
But that brings up a problem: how do animals look like? Painting an elephant is difficult if you have only heard descriptions. Fortunately, in the same period also the first animal encyclopedias were published. Those were real status symbols, luxury goods, not always accessible to artists. Nevertheless, they knew the natural history works. They take motifs from these books: giraffes look like a cross between a camel and a leopard and are always in the same position. How could they do that?
By finding out whom the artists contacted, Rikken discovered a pivotal role in the network for mapmaker Abraham Ortelius. He corresponded with both the artists and the natural historians, and was a kind of bridge between the two. “Cartographer Ortelius was also a merchant and collector of prints. He seems to have actively encouraged artists to make drawings of animals: a lot of them only depicted animals after they had come in contact with Ortelius.
Another key figure did not live in the Southern Netherlands but in Prague: Emperor Rudolf II of Habsburg. Rudolph was not really successful as a ruler, but was a great patron of the arts and sciences. His court was full of the big names of the time: astronomers Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler came, the Dutch inventor Cornelis Drebbel, and a huge list of artists. Among them were a number of animal painters of the Southern Netherlands, who took full advantage of Rudolf’s natural history collection.
Starting in 1630, the depiction of animals as a genre was quite mature, Rikken explains: “The important developments that at first quickly succeeded each other, then stopped.”
The bird collection
“There are three versions of the painting Allegory of the Air. The version at the top of this post is the last one in which everything worked. Brueghel added more birds in each new version, as more species were discovered. The Senegal parrot (right, with the yellow patch on the chest, ed.), and the yellow-crested cockatoo were at the time new birds for Europeans. The penguins do weird with their wings, though.
Below left you see two birds of paradise. According to the myth these birds did not land, but always remained in the air. They, according to that story, had no legs, and the female laid her eggs in a cavity in the back of the male. Brueghel prominently pictured them here with legs and visible eggs, to debunk the myth. Had he seen a bird of paradise? The collection of Emperor Rudolf II had one, which explicitly states that it had legs. Other Prague artists, however, depicted them without legs, so it remains mysterious.”