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Birds in a Landscape

Dutch Paintings Reveal the Origin of the Breeds

by Chris Ashton

Britain saw an explosion of duck breeds around the end of the nineteenth century. This was largely due to the influence of the Indian Runner, and the commitment of individuals such as Cook of Orpington, and Mrs Campbell of Uley, who were fascinated by what they found. What is often overlooked is what went before.

Poultry and farming journals, where most of the evidence for the development of the breeds is found, were not widely available until Victorian times. Nor was there much to be said. But there is earlier, alternative and often much better evidence in the form of paintings, and the most significant of these belong to the Dutch Republic’s Golden Age.

For two centuries, the VOC (Dutch East India Company) was the largest trading and shipping company in the world. This company, whose main base was in Amsterdam, can be considered the world’s first multinational. It provided work for more than a million people in the Netherlands and Asia and conducted its trade in a complex series of exchanges between the islands of the East Indies and the peninsulas of SE Asia, as well as trading with Japan, China, India, Ceylon and the Arabian Peninsula.

Trade in various commodities (such as spices, sugar, textiles and metals) created enormous wealth for investors in the VOC. The company was financed by a system of shares which established the world’s first modern stock exchange and the bank of Amsterdam became the first true central bank.

Enormous wealth was created in the Dutch Republic for a variety of reasons, and it is this wealth, and the international trade on which it was based, that stimulated the 'duck breeds explosion'. Not only could birds have come to Europe by these VOC trading routes, but the wealth of the associated entrepreneurs also ensured that evidence of their possessions was recorded for posterity.

Subjects of Dutch Painters

Rich people have always wished to spend their wealth on both comfort and status luxuries. In Holland this was manifested in the purchase of country estates with exotic animals and bird collections, and these possessions were also recorded in paintings for the home. It is estimated that between 1600 and 1700 no less than 5 million paintings were executed in the United Provinces over a 100 year period. The paintings themselves were professional art and became items of trade. The nouveau riche, mimicking the nobility, had also discovered that the possession of artwork was a symbol of power, the paintings and their subjects indicating their owner’s high status.

Following the Reformation in N. Europe, many Dutch painters of the 1600s were able to focus on this new, niche market rather than exclusively religious or aristocratic subjects. For some artists it was landscapes, for others, still life. Painters could also focus on ordinary people getting drunk, enjoying themselves in the kitchen cooking and brewing – in fact anything other than Holy images.

Portrait painting was now of the nouveau riche and powerful people such as the Burghers of Amsterdam. The beauty of this period of art is that it shows what both rich and poor people were like, what they did and what they owned.

Artists often specialised in specific genres - landscape, still life or portraiture, for instance. Within these specialisms there were further refinements. Some still-life specialists, for example, almost exclusively painted dead fish, whereas others perfected the rendering of flowers, the food and containers of the dining table, or dead game. Such subjects became their trademark.

The d'Hondecoeter family

Depicting birds was a tradition in the d’Hondecoeter family. Gillis d' Hondecoeter (c. 1570-1638) painted landscapes with domesticated and exotic birds and animals, and his son Gijsbert d' Hondecoeter (1604-1653), also painted birds, particularly waterfowl and poultry. The grandson, Melchior d’Hondecoeter, became known in the nineteenth century as the ‘Raphael of bird painters’. He was born into a family of artists and studied both with his father Gijsbert Gillisz d’Hondecoeter and his uncle Jan Baptist Weenix. His paintings can be found in several museums and depict Chinese geese, Hook Bill, Muscovy and Crested ducks.

Jan Steen

An early record of new duck colours and duck breeds is in Jan Steen’s 'Poulty Yard' of 1650 where he paints crested ducks, and depicts birds with both the bibbed and pied gene which will, of course, go on to make the Magpie pattern. Crested and pied birds are found in Indonesia today, and the inference is that both of these genes originated in the vast duck population of the Far East.

It is also possible that the crested gene arose independently in Holland, and the lack of Indian Runner types in these early Dutch pictures suggest that that could be the case.[Runners have now been found in paintings from the 1600s]. Nevertheless, it is possible that the faster ships could have returned with a live cargo. We know from Kenneth Broekman's research that cargo included duck eggs and salted 'pingouin ducks' and it is great pity that there seem to be no continental written records of the import of actual live Indian Runners at this point in time.

Picture of Jan Steen's Poultry Yard, 1650, with crested and pied ducks Jan Steen's Poultry Yard, 1650, (lower half) with crested and pied ducks.

Hook Bill Ducks

The origin of the Hook Bill duck is an ever greater mystery than the crested. As far as we know, these birds have not been found in the Far East. Yet birds of this type are shown in paintings by Johannes Spruyt and Melchior d' Hondecoeter. Did they evolve in Holland, or arrive from the far East?

Picture of  A Pair of Ducks in a Landscape by Johannes Spruyt Johannes Spruyt (c.1627 - 1671): A Pair of Ducks in a Landscape The Ducks show evidence of the pied gene in the female, and her Hook Bill profile. This painting can be seen at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, and viewed in the online collection External link image.

Picture of ’Ducks at a lake’ showing the pied and magpie pattern. Johannes Spruyt Amsterdam 1628 – 1671’Ducks at a lake’ showing the pied and magpie pattern. Johannes Spruyt Amsterdam 1628 – 1671. www.en.museumbredius.nl/product/spruyt-johannes-ducks-at-a-lake/ External link image.

Unfortunately, English Art does not seem to reveal much about the Indian Runner, apart perhaps from Albin's portrait of the Upright Duck in 1734 (see IRDA Newsletter Spring 2005). These are signs that the mallard restricted gene from the Asian Pekin had started to influence the duck population in English farmyard ducks painted after 1872 when the drakes start to get wide neck rings, and light wing coverts. Artists do seem to have neglected the subject here, and it is the continental painters who have given us a unique window into duck history.

Page last updated: 16th October 2023