The Odyssey of Animals

Musée de Flandre  Cassel offers an authentic trip through art history, presenting a grand story in which we meet the painted animals of the 17th century Flemish masters.

Frans Snyders (1579-1657) "Concert des oiseaux" oil on canvas
Frans Snyders (1579-1657)
“Concert des oiseaux”
oil on canvas

A passion for invention and discovery existed during this time. The famous dodo of Alice in Wonderland illustrates this point, as the book reinforced the representation of treasures. This well known dodo disappeared during the 17th century and became the face of extinct animals.

We find a world hovering between fantasy and reality, where geography barely matters. These artists delve into the work of naturalists and are inspired to create new species.

Roelandt Savery develops the wildlife subject and depicts the first dodo at the court of Emperor Rodolphe. I imagine curiosity surrounded the work, but this bird becomes the artist’s emblem, his signature.

Frans Snyders (1579-1657) (détail)
Frans Snyders (1579-1657)

We pass the magnificent paintings and admire the colours, celestial landscapes, and enchanting animals. We see a crowned crane, a pair of horses, hens, and lions…but that’s not all.

We must immerse ourselves in the collection, observing each detail to recognise the sense of history that is present. We see Noah kneeling in the mist of his arc, (“he thanks God” by Roelandt Savery, oil on wood.) And later, we meet the myth of Orpheus, which we must decode ourselves.

Paul de Vos (ca1591/92 - 1678) "Deux jeunes phoques sur un rivage" Huile sur toile 1650
Paul de Vos (ca1591/92 – 1678)
“Deux jeunes phoques sur un rivage”

What is intriguing is our encounter with incongruous details like Savery’s seal in a birdcage, or the magnificent portrait of seals, snails, and shellfish.

Jan I Brueghel the Elder, paints the grandeur of God, portraying a God that protects and not one that punishes. He has a more realistic hand, recreating the animals he sees in Park of the Archduke Allbert and Archduchess Isabelle of Bruxelles. In the painting, “Entrance of the Animals on Noah’s Arc,” the qualities of the horse are the mark of Rubens, demonstrating the resemblance between the two artists. But who influences who? In “Party of the Monkeys” Brueghel portrays a Rubens door.

What I admire about this exhibit is that it is not only a treat for our eyes, but also presents an educational element. The curator wisely placed two studio paintings side by side, so we can see the differences between works by Jan Fyt and Paul de Vos, who both depict foxes. Bit by bit, our eyes get used to the body of work and we commend what the Flemish masters offer us. We understand the sentiment behind this kind of painting, which isn’t just a zoologic representation in a museum, but proposes ideas and societies of the 17th century that we must decode.

Jan van Kessel l'Ancien (1626-1679)
Jan van Kessel l’Ancien (1626-1679)

Van Kessel creates a miniature painting around 1606, which displays a small mouse and two roses. The introduction of the microscope in insect studies participates in the rise of miniature painting, which a slew of artists practice. This includes David Teniers, who marries a daughter of Brueghel.

We encounter the story of the owl attached to a post. The animal is blind during the day and attracts small birds, which benefits the hunters. In Frans Snyders’ beautiful “Concert Birds,” from Cape Town, the owl seeks to restore order amidst the noise like the song that says, “each one talks this way.”

Paul de Vos "La chasse aux renards"
Paul de Vos
“La chasse aux renards”

Another painted treasure presents itself to us, as Van Kessel’s “Concert of Birds” is restored by Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan. This inspires a poem that says that the birds come together for Valentine’s Day to find the right match, but the ostrich finds itself alone!

Jan Fyt "La chasse aux renards" (détail)
Jan Fyt
“La chasse aux renards” (détail)

Later, I view the “Dead Lion” of Frans Snyders, and right next it is the rabbit who taunts the lion.

Jan Fyt (1611-1661) " Le marché aux poissons" Huile sur toile
Jan Fyt (1611-1661)
” Le marché aux poissons” Huile sur toile

You must visit this collection of beauties to appreciate the expertise of the Flemish masters and the enthusiasm of the exhibit’s curator Sandrine Vézilier-Dussart.

Florence Briat Soulie

Translated by Tess Holland, Wesleyan University, Vassar-Wesleyan Program in Paris Fall 2016.

Musée de Flandre – Cassel

The Odyssey of Animals

October 8th 2016 – January 22nd  2017

Musee de Flandre

Grand Place – 59670 CASSEL – France
T. 33(0)3 59 73 45 60
F. 33(0)3 59 73 45 71

Musée de Flandre - Cassel
Musée de Flandre – Cassel

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