Having a grandfather, father, and brother-in-law, who are accomplished artists must be a great benefit when considering your future occupation. My featured artist had all three as role models and therefore there is no surprise that he too became a renowned artist. The artist I am talking about today is the seventeenth century Dutch painter, Melchior d’Hondecoeter, who was born in Utrecht around the early months of 1636. Hondecoeter was known for his bird studies and in particular for the realistic portrayal of these beautiful creatures. Initially he painted seascapes but around 1660 he concentrated on depictions featuring colourful and often exotic birds. The settings for his paintings were varied. Sometimes it was a farmyard, other times it would be a country park or the courtyard of a palatial residence. Nearly all the works had an interesting background, often lush landscapes enhanced by the odd architectural feature. This type of work was in great demand at the time and his paintings adorned the large rooms of wealthy Amsterdam merchants’ houses and some were even purchased by William III for his palaces. It is said that Hondecoeter kept his own poultry yard at his house, but he also made visits to the country residences of his patrons where he could study more exotic species and perfect settings.
But first let me talk a little about his antecedents who were to play an important part in forming his life. His paternal grandfather was the painter, Gillis d’Hondecoeter who was born into a Protestant family in Antwerp around 1580. A year after his birth, the Northern Netherlands, renounced the rule of the King of Spain with the declaration of Independence, Acte van Verlatinghe (Act of Abjuration), and as a result, Antwerp became even more engaged in the rebellion against the rule of Habsburg Spain. Antwerp was laid siege by Catholic Spanish forces for twelve months and it is thought that around 1582 Gillis and his family had to flee the city and move the safer protestant town of Delft. It is recorded that Gillis married on September 22nd 1602. His bride was Maritgen (Mayken) Ghysbrechts van Heemskerk who had come from the Dutch municipality of Rhenen. At this time Gillis was already living in Utrecht. A year later the couple moved to Amsterdam and it was here that Gillis remained until his death in October 1638.
One of Gillis d’Hondecoete best known paintings is The Baptism of the Moorish Chamberlain. It is a forest landscape work. The landscape is used as background, the trees serving as the wings of the setting. The depiction is based on a theme taken from the Acts of the Apostles (8: 26-40) which tells the story of Philip the Evangelist who converts and baptises the eunuch who was the chief treasurer to the Queen of Ethiopia. It all came about on the road, when Philip falls in with the Moorish chamberlain who was returning from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The story goes that Moor had been reading the Book of Isaiah in his carriage but does not understand the content. Philip offers to explain it to him and, using the Old Testament, he preaches the teaching of Christ. Arriving at a stream, the chamberlain requests to be baptised.
Gillis and his wife went on to have nine children including Melchior’s father Gijsbert d’Hondecoeter and a daughter, Josintje d’Hondecoeter. Josintje married the painter Jan Baptiste Weenix in 1639. His father, Jan Weenix, was Melchior’s cousin and also a well-known artist. It is easy to understand that Melchior d’Hondecoete was brought up in an artistic household and as you will see much of his artwork was similar to that of his family.
Gijsbert d’Hondecoeter, primarily a painter of barnyard fowl, became a member of the Guild of St. Luke in Utrecht in 1629. He initially taught his son Melchior but in 1653, when his son was in his late teens, he died and Melchior’s artistic tuition was taken over by his brother-in-law, Jan Baptist Weenix.
Arnold Houbraken, also a 17th century painter, but best known as a biographer of Dutch Golden Age painters, was told by Jan Weenix that Melchior was an extremely religious youth, continually absorbed in prayer, so much so that his mother and uncle wondered whether they should have him trained as a minister rather than as a painter. Melchior worked as an artist in Utrecht and became a member of the Confrerie Pictura and its head in October 1654
Records show that in August 1658, twenty-two-year-old Melchior was working in The Hague and had become a member of the local Confrerie Pictura, an artist’s society which had been formed in 1656. Normally, it would have been expected that as a professional artist, Melchior would have become a member of the town’s well established association, The Guild of St Luke, but he decided on aligning himself with the Confreirie Pictura which had been set up by 48 dissatisfied painters who had left the local Guild. Melchior became chief of this painters’ fraternity in 1662. In 1663, Melchior d’Hondecoeter married Susanne Tradel, a thirty-year-old woman from Amsterdam and the couple had two children, Jacob and Isabel, baptized in 1666 and 1668. The couple, as well as his sister-in-laws, lived on the street which ran alongside the Lauriergracht canal, which housed many artists and art dealers. It is believed that Hondecoeter spent much time in his garden or drinking in the tavern in the Jordaan, possibly being overwhelmed by the household of women. He later moved to Leliegracht which was close to his favoured drinking haunt on the Jordaan
One of Melchior’s most famous works was his painting entitled A Pelican and Other Birds Near a Pool but is often referred to as The Floating Feather which he completed around 1680. The shortened title is because of the feather we see floating in the pond in the foreground. The work was commissioned by the Stadholder William III of Orange for his Het Loon Palace in Apledoorn. It must have been a great honour for Hondecoeter to receive such a commission from the country’s ruler. The painting depicts a pelican in the foreground, a cassowary behind it at the left, and a flamingo and a black crowned crane. In the foreground various water birds congregate in and around a basin, and a feather floats on the water’s surface. Paintings like this were admired by wealthy merchants of Amsterdam, and by William III, who had works by Melchior at three of his palaces. Hondecoeter’s murals and large paintings were ideal for merchants’ large country houses and the depiction of birds was very popular at the time.
Another painting which was bought by William III for his palace at Het Loo was his work entitled The Menagerie. It depicts two squirrel monkeys from Central America, two white sulphur-crested cockatoos from Australia, a grey parrot from Africa and a purple-naped lory, from Indonesia, on a chain at the lower left of the painting. In this painting, Hondecoeter combined these creatures and several other colourful exotic birds. The finished painting was given to William III and was hung above the door of the king’s private apartment.
Hondecoeter completed a similar depiction in his painting A Pelican and other exotic birds in a park, and in the birds we see before us, there are some similarities, such as: the birds on the water, the group of exotic birds, the pelican, and the famous floating feather. Other features are also similar, such as the background landscape and the Muscovy duck in the centre foreground. In this work, new species of birds have been added on the far side of the pool and a Moluccan cockatoo can be seen in the tree on the left. It is thought that Melchior completed this work sometime between 1655 and 1660.
The National Museum Wales has a painting by Melchior d’Hondecoete. It is entitled A Park with Swan and Other Birds. The setting is a country house park with fowl before a fountain and an ornamental terrace with statues and figures. In the depiction we see European birds as well as a peacock, a North American turkey and an African crowned crane in front of a fountain on an ornamental terrace The painting is one of six by the artist which once hung in the London home of Emily Charlotte, a daughter of Welsh landowner, industrialist and Liberal politician, C.R.M. Talbot of Margam Abbey and Penrice Castle. This type of painting was often used to decorate the country houses of wealthy Dutch patrons.
In 1692, his wife died and Melchior went to live in the house of his daughter Isabel on the Warmoesstraat, one of the oldest streets in the city. Melchior d’Hondecoete died, aged 59, in Amsterdam on April 3rd 1695, and was buried in the Westerkerk. He left his daughter with substantial debts.