Visitors to the Stark Museum of Art’s latest exhibition on hunting expecting to see Western art will be surprised to see genteel European gentlemen rather than the usual rugged cowboys.
“A Noble Pursuit: Hunting Pictures from the Collection of the Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation,” is an interesting diversion from the norm (don’t worry, the museum’s permanent galleries are still full of their impressive collection of Western art).
A prominent social pastime since ancient times, during the 17th and 18th centuries hunting was also seen as a way for the aristocracy to exercise good mental and physical health. The museum’s literature also states that it was a surrogate for war during peace times.
Of course, artists created etchings and books that sought to capitalize on the popularity of the hunt.
Jan Fyt was a still-life and animal painter in 17th-century Antwerp. His painting “Hounds Resting from the Chase,” from 1650, is a collection of various dogs. It is more like a static portrait or still-life than a dynamic hunting image, but the hounds are exquisitely painted and each one showcases unique features.
However, Fyt was clearly marketing to an audience. A series of eight etchings in the show feature recurring images, obviously drawn from a bank of stock images. The etchings were so popular they were reprinted several times.
It is always fun to see how earlier artists render animals. Johann Heinrich Tischbein’s “Jumping Wild Boar,” from 1794, is almost cartoonish. The boar appears to be smiling. One questions how they would be able to kill such a happy little chap.
Pieter Claesz Soutman’s large etching, “The Large Boar Hunt,” is a reverse image of a Peter Paul Rubens painting commissioned by the Duke of Bavaria. In typical Rubens fashion, the image is a swirling mass of people, horses and dogs, all in pursuit of the boar. The servants are shirtless and muscular. It is reminiscent of one of Ruben’s religious paintings in composition, such as “Beheading of John the Baptist,” or the war painting, “Victory and Death of The Consul Decius Mus at The Battle.” There is no doubting Rubens’ style.
The exhibition mostly comprises works on paper, specifically etchings and books illustrations, which makes the few paintings stand out.
Willem van Aelst’s “A Still Life of Game and a Blue Velvet Game Bag on a Marble Ledge,” from 1665, is beautifully rendered painting and typical of the Dutch masters. Typical of a still life of the period, the objects are depicted as if the hunter has just come in and placed the objects on the entrance table. The dead bird’s feathers are immaculate, as is the hunter’s bag with its fringe and adornments. The image also includes the tools of the hunt, including a red falcon hood. The sumptuous blue bag indicates that the hunter is from the elite. This is no poacher. One cannot help but be impressed by the technique. A fun little detail is the fly that rests on the bird’s wing.
By way of contrast, the French artist Alexandre-Francois Desportes’ “Still Life with Dog and Game,” from 1710, includes a wide-eyed dog looking longingly at the catch. It reflects the artist’s Flemish training, but the addition of the dog offers up a slightly more romanticized image. Desportes was King Louis XIV’s official painter of hunting and animals. He even took up hunting to be able to be more accurate.
“Noble Pursuit” is an interesting look at the role hunting played in European high society. And there’s not a deer lease in sight.
The Stark Museum of Art is located at 712 Green Ave. in Orange. For more, visit stark-museum.org.
This story first ran in the Jan. 13, 2023 Art of Living section of the Beaumont Enterprise.