The rather unusual format of this picture is not the result of a reduction in canvas size, as might first be supposed – the truncated figures of the chick, lower left, and the turkey, right, are part of Hondecoeter’s original conception. Their forms serve both to frame and lend cohesion to the group of fowl, as well as creating the characteristic descending diagonal, around which Hondecoeter based many of his compositions. The abbreviation of the birds also instils the scene with a sense of immediacy and spontaneity, as the startled rooster in the centre turns to confront the seemingly unexpected appearance of the stately turkey. Cropping birds or animals in this way, as they enter from the side, was a compositional device that Hondecoeter frequently used following the example of the great Flemish animal and still-life painter Frans Snyders (1579–1657), working a generation earlier.
Though not cut from a larger composition, the present painting is, however, a smaller variation of a painting in the Alte Pinakothek, Munich, which measures 92.5 by 111.3 cm.4 There are several differences between the paintings: in the Munich composition the turkey has advanced further into the scene; the gait of the cockerel is less assured; a white chicken on the left puffs out its wings in defence of the large number of chicks on the farmyard floor; and another taller chicken observes the scene from behind. The present picture includes, by contrast, fewer chicks, the brooding white hen set back from the foreground, and the pigeon, balancing the slightly more elongated composition. There are also differences in the farmyard buildings in the background, although both pictures bear a resemblance to the setting of the Poultry yard painting in Detroit.
The chronology of Hondecoeter’s œuvre is difficult to establish since only about twenty of his paintings are signed and the repetition of motifs, sometimes decades after they were first introduced, leads to further complication. Although the artist does not appear to have made preparatory drawings, he did paint oil on canvas modelli through his study of birds and animals from life. Fourteen such works were recorded in his studio on his death, but only one survives today in the Palais des Beaux-Arts, Lille.5 Hondecoeter used these oil sketches to copy or adapt motifs in his finished pictures dating from about 1668 onwards; he would also repeat large passages with variations.6 The present picture exemplifies his ability to both repeat and skilfully alter compositions and subjects to create a new, coherent ensemble.
1 G. H. V. Upmark, Die Architektur der Renaissance in Schweden, 1530–1760, Dresden 1900, p. 125.
2 Inv. no. 1949.102.
3 Inv. no. 45.16.
4 Inv. no. 401. See Brochhagen and Knüttel 1967, p. 35, no. 401.
5 Inv no. P1027.
6 For a discussion of Hondecoeter’s chronology, see W. Liedtke, Dutch Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 2007, vol. I, p. 348.
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