The Poultry Yard by Melchior d'Hondecoeter
is one of my NGV favourites. I am a sucker for pictures of poultry and whereas I can't afford even a small Hondecoeter, I am lucky enough to own a delightful little chook watercolour by Pat Cox, which gives me a lot of pleasure. However, very few painters are in the same league as Melchior when it comes to poultry. He is to feathers what Anthony van Dyck is to silk and satin: nobody does it better.
Many Dutch and Flemish painters of the Golden Age specialised in birds. Dead ones. They turned out endless numbers of still lifes featuring fruit and veg and dead poultry. Dead rabbits too, for good measure. Very realistic job they did, I'm not complaining.
But Melchior d'Hondecoeter, bless him, would have no truck with poultry about to be plucked and casseroled. His birds are not only alive, but by golly, they have a social life! They quarrel, they gossip, they cuddle tenderly, they strut arrogantly.
He liked to place his birds in park-like settings, often with a bit of statuary thrown in. He painted not only domestic fowls and poultry, but exotic birds which the Dutch merchant ships brought back from their new colonies in Africa, America and the East Indies. Peacocks, pelicans and parrots grace his canvases along with geese, hens and fighting cocks.
Hondecoeter was a very successful and prolific artist. His paintings are held in galleries around the world, but the first exhibition of a collection of his work was in 2010 at the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, when the Dutch artist Willem de Rooij put together an installation he called "Intolerance, a three-dimensional collage". He juxtaposed 18 of Hondecoeter's bird paintings with a group of 18th century feathered objects from Hawaii: rather creepy masks, robes and heads associated with the religious practices of the indigenous people. I skimmed lightly over the Hawaiian objects and enjoyed Melchior's birds.
Next time you are at the NGV, have a look at the kerfuffle in the poultry yard: the hen is clearly giving that duck a piece of her mind!