Day 27 – Melchior d’Hondecoeter, ‘Birds, Butterflies and a Frog among Plants and Fungi’, 1668, National Gallery, London.
Well, here’s a curious thing! In terms of the standard classifications of art, it’s hard to know where to put it. Given its size (68 x 57 cm) and its subject matter, it should be a Still Life painting – but there’s nothing still about it, although everything is very much alive. That’s one of the curious things about the term – the objects in Still Life paintings are still, certainly, but usually dead. Or inanimate. The French and Italians call the genre ‘dead nature’, and while the ‘objects’ in this painting are definitely all natural, yet not dead. So it’s neither ‘still life’ nor ‘nature morte’. You could argue that this is a small landscape I suppose – even if it is in a portrait format. And once we’ve got to this point, you realise that these ‘standard’ categories aren’t always especially helpful. Which is perhaps not entirely surprising, because Hondecoeter was painting in the 17th Century, before a lot of the language or art – or science for that matter – had taken on its apparently timeless fixity.
I’ve chosen this painting for a very specific reason. I received a request, which was in effect a challenge, to talk about a painting with fungus in it. And oddly, I could only think of two. So, if you know any more, please let me know! And for that matter, if you have anything you’d like me to talk about, let me know that as well.
Melchior d’Hondecoeter was initially trained by his father Gysbrecht, and probably also studied with his uncle Jan Baptist Weenix, who is far better known. Weenix specialised in painting grandiloquent mountains of dead things – usually game – which are more sumptuous than you might expect. One of the best places to see them is at the Wallace Collection in London. Melchior, on the other hand, preferred his birds alive. He was born in Utrecht some time around 1636, but moved on to The Hague at the age of 23, and then four years later, to Amsterdam. He was 31 when he painted today’s picture, and it’s considered an early work: he died, still in Amsterdam, some 30 years later.
As you can see from this example, not only did prefer his birds alive, but he liked them to have character. Indeed, he has given us the material for a three-act play set somewhere in a shady grove. The colouration suggests this will be a tragedy, the darkness of the palette creating an air of foreboding, but it’s not without a comic sub-plot. The main drama involves a bird, presumably a brambling, presumably minding its own business, until a frog hauls itself out of the pond – this is clearly an affront to common decency, and the brambling is doing its best to give it a good telling off. In artistic terms, the frog is what we would call a ‘repoussoir’ – something in the foreground of the painting, which encourages us to look further in. And we do: we follow the frog’s gaze only to see the brambling trying to scare it off. Meanwhile, up on a branch another bird – possibly another brambling, or maybe a chaffinch, it’s hard to tell from this angle and with that much flapping – is joining it at a safe distance, giving the frog a piece of its own mind. Next: we cut to the comic sub-plot. A more than usually cocky sparrow, which, judging by its swagger, really does think it is the cock of the walk, stumbles across the scene by chance, followed at a distance by a slightly duller bird. The first, foppish sparrow is brought up short, and looks over to see if the frog is really as much of a threat as the brambling thinks. The birds and the frog are at an impasse, and this pause in the proceedings allows a snail to get away. They could so easily have eaten it. Meanwhile, butterflies and moths flutter around, a chorus only confusing matters further.
There are emperor moths, and on the far left, a faded small tortoiseshell butterfly. At the top, there is also a painted lady. As with many Still Life paintings, these species don’t always appear at the same time in the same place. It is an artistic construct, rather than a documentary, after all, even if it might be pretending to be the latter. Look at the tortoiseshell and the emperor near it, for example. They look almost as if they are deliberately displaying their wings so that we can identify them – and it is highly likely that Hondecoeter was painting them from specimens. He may have had a collection himself, but if not, he would certainly have known people who did – they were the very people he was painting for. In the 17th Century, interest in the natural world was very much on the increase. Anyone who was anyone would have had their own ‘wunderkammer’, or ‘chamber of wonders’. These were like prototype museums with all the curiosities of the natural world included: shells, minerals and crystals, butterflies and even stuffed birds. In the midst of all this there could be paintings, bringing the dead objects to life, and showing you animal, vegetable and mineral together.
Unfortunately, this is another classification that falls apart fairly easily. At the time it seemed like a clear division. But what about the fungus? Is it a vegetable? That really depends whether you are ordering a meal, or studying natural history, to be honest. At this point it is worth remembering Hamlet (as it so often is), and in particular his statement, ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy’. You only have to watch most David Attenborough documentaries to realise that (trust me – I live with an Ecologist, and I’ve seen most of them). For example, there is one thing that we know, that Hondecoeter probably didn’t: a fungus is not a plant. While most of us were growing up, ‘Fungi’ belonged to their own Kingdom – ‘Plants’ and ‘Animals’ being two of the others. After that it gets really confusing, because some countries, including the UK, assume there are five kingdoms, others, such as the US, say there are six. But by now, many scientists don’t believe in the concept of kingdoms at all, because not everything previously included in each kingdom is descended from a common ancestor – plants, animals and fungi are still separate branches on the evolutionary tree, but there are so many other branches. Slime molds, for example. And bacteria, which take up about a third of the evolutionary tree on their own. Don’t even start on viruses, they’re not even included. We might be obsessed with one right now, but they are not even classified as fully living things. They are somewhere in a grey area between being alive, and not being alive.
Anyway, back to the fungus. I don’t know what type Hondecoeter has depicted, I’m not a mycologist (someone who studies fungi), and neither is the Ecologist. But I do know that Fungi are everywhere, even though we don’t see them very often. Most plants co-exist with fungi, tiny ones, which attach themselves to the roots of the plants, and help them to feed. Most of the time fungi are out of view. Most of their substance is made up of a network of fine fibres almost invisible to the naked eye. But when they want to reproduce, the fruiting bodies appear out of the ground, or the tree trunk that the fibres have been living in. These fruiting bodies take on forms that vary from sombre to fantastical, and from delicious on toast to highly toxic, only to let off myriad spores and then disappear again. They live off dead material and are essential in breaking it down. Sometimes, of course, they live off living material too. I assume it is the former that led Hondecoeter to include them. Their role as autumnal harbingers of decomposition and decay adds to the sense of threat and foreboding in the painting. This isn’t a love story he’s telling us. Or, if it is, it must be a tragic one.
It’s also – like a more standard Still Life – about showing off. Hondecoeter is remarkably good at depicting the different textures, differentiating the patterns of the butterflies and the feathers of the birds, the glistening of the frog and of the snail. People often lament that nobody can paint like that nowadays. They can, to be perfectly honest, but it just doesn’t suit the way we live, it doesn’t say anything about life today.
The fact that people don’t paint like this now was brought back to me by a sentence in a book I read recently, a novel, about a young scientist who had chosen his profession having been inspired by a documentary about a natural philosopher living in the 16th Century – only to find out that scientific life these days isn’t always so exciting:
‘To be a renaissance scientist, it was beginning to dawn on him, one first needed to live in the renaissance’.
The same is true of art. The quotation comes from a book called ‘Living with Annie’ by a friend of mine, Simon Christmas, and I really enjoyed it (yes, this is a plug). You can find my review here:
Annie, by the way, is a fungus. And it was Simon who challenged me. Tomorrow there will be more sunlight.