Case Study
 
           
           

Historical Rewards:

A Dutch and a Flemish Discovery
           

Egbert van der Poel
"Barn Interior" 164[6]
After Treatment
           
           
           
 

The Flayed Pig
 
           
The addition of a flayed pig is certainly a significant inclusion within the painting's overall composition. It receives most of the light entering through the open half-door and dwarfs the adjacent woman. These factors clearly demonstrate the artist's interest in focusing the viewer's initial attention on the animal. The carcass's genre aspects, historical references, and symbolic interpretations are examined below.
           

Egbert vand der Poel
Detail "Barn Interior" 164[6]
After Treatment
           
           
Genre Aspects
           
On one level, the carcass of an animal can be seen solely for what it is. Flayed pigs or oxen would have been a common sight in the Netherlands during this time period. (16) After slaughter, the animal would have been suspended vertically on a wooden support. Hanging allowed the meat to cool, making it easier to cut and prepare. The blood was normally collected in a container placed on the floor under the animal and used in the preparation of black pudding.
           
Two contemporary images documenting the slaughter are pictured below. Below left is Isaac van Ostade's (1621-1649) "Peasants Outside a Farmhouse Butchering a Pig" from 1641. Ostade, who lived only twenty-eight years, was a major influence on the treated painting's composition and style. The artist sharpens the viewer's attention on the killing by placing the darkened ax against the cottage's lighter stone background. The scene is depicted as a "family event" with the children unemotionally viewing the slaughter. The second child from the right holds an even smaller child while some of the children on the left are paying no attention at all. The family dog is also included and may be partaking of the spoils. In this composition, the flaying is nothing more than an act of sustenance and a common occurrence in seventeenth-century Dutch life.
           
Adriaen van Ostade (1610-1685), Isaac's brother, captured a similar scene in the lower left etching from 1645. In this scene, the cottage is in the background while the foreground figures witness the actual killing. Again, the flaying is portrayed as a family and the gathered children observe the ritual without judgment. It is the serenity of the moment that provides the composition's impact. The captivating campfire-lighting effect offers an inner radiating glow as if the light were emanating from the animal itself.
           

Isaac van Ostade
"Peasants Outside a Farmhouse
Butchering a Pig" 1641
Norton Simon Collection, Pasadena.

Isaac van Ostade
Detail "Peasants Outside a Farmhouse
Butchering a Pig" 1641
Norton Simon Collection, Pasadena.
           

Adriaen van Ostade
"Peasants Slaughtering a Pig" 1645
The Art Institute of Chicago

Adriaen van Ostade
Detail "Peasants Slaughtering a Pig" 1645
The Art Institute of Chicago
           
In the treated painting, the position of the animal next to the open half-door could have had commercial advantages. Animal parts could have been sold to buyers through the open doorway.
           
           
 

Historical References
 
           
The portrayal of a flayed pig was not limited to the seventeenth century; it can also be seen in earlier sixteenth-century Netherlandish compositions. Joachim Beuckelaer's (1530-1574) 1563 "Slaughtered Pig" is pictured below left while Martin van Cleve's (1520-1570) 1566 version is shown below right. Beuckelaer's composition would have been influenced by the work of his teacher Pieter Aertsen (1508-1575), who painted numerous market scenes that included animal carcasses. In contrast to Aertsen's multi-focus scenes, Beuckelaer has brought the singular image of the flayed animal to the forefront with the human activities relegated, in shadow, to the rear. The animal itself has become the subject matter.
           
The van Cleve portrays a similar composition with the animal front and center. On the left, the mother appears to be preparing some of the meat while the father takes a momentary drink from a flagon. These figures are compositionally balanced by the open doorway and the two children on the right. Similar to the Beuckelaer, the van Cleve carcass so dominates the space that the remainder of the composition revolves around it.
           

Joachim Beucklaer
"Slaughtered Pig" 1563
Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne

Martin van Cleve
"The Slaughtered Pig" 1566
Kunst Historisches Museum, Vienna
           
Van der Poel's contemporary, Isaac van Ostade, painted numerous interior scenes with flayed pigs. The two below images are clearly influenced by earlier sixteenth-century paintings. In both versions, the animal is the composition's central figure and is bordered by stark interiors and two children. The lighting, which comes from an undefined source, is used to direct the viewer's attention on the animal, and only the animal.
           

Isaac van Ostade
"The Cut Pig" ca. 1642
Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest

Isaac van Ostade
"Slaughtered Pig" 1642
Private Collection
           
           

Symbolic Interpretations
           
Why did these Dutch artists focus entire paintings on a flayed animal? What were they trying to tell us? What were the underlying meanings behind these compositions? A review of the layered symbolism within these works will be examined through the compositions of Holland's preeminent master, Rembrandt van Rijn. (17)
           
           
 

Rembrandt van Rijn
 
 

(1606-1669)
 
           
Rembrandt's influence on Dutch seventeenth-century art--whether in portraits, landscapes, religious scenes, or allegorical subjects--cannot be overstated. His portrait images always reached into the psychological depths of his sitters, conveying beyond their mere physical form the soul or spirituality of these individuals. It is this physical/spiritual interplay of substance and reverence that dominates his two paintings of a slaughtered ox. These images are pictured below.
           
In both images, one is initially struck by the size and scale of the carcass "which has been skinned and split open, revealing the meat in all its variegation of color" (18) and which dominates the center foreground of each picture. Similar to the two examples by van Ostade, the animal is set against a darkened background and spotlighted from an unknown source. The thinner application of paint in these dark areas assists in bringing the animal's richer impasto paint forward. While figures have been included in each scene, they are overshadowed by the immensity of the carcass.
           

Rembrandt van Rijn
"The Slaughtered Ox" 1638
Glasgow Museum of Art

Rembrandt van Rijn
"The Flayed Ox" 1655
The Louvre, Paris.
           
Rembrandt has carefully painted the drying meat, the open rib cage, and the bulbous lumps of fat and gore. On a physical level, the image is nothing more than a dead animal to be used for human consumption. On another level, Rembrandt was able to transform the image into a visual metaphor for spiritual beauty. The carcass is both "horrible and holy," (19) an ever-present reminder of life's ephemeral character and spiritual profundity.
           
The depiction of a slaughtered ox, suspended on a wooden support--its outspread legs like arms affixed to a cross--would have been recognized by the contemporary Calvinist eye as a crucifixion image. The slaughter of a calf was specifically cited as a visual symbol for the crucifixion in thirteenth-century images. Below left is an example of this imagery from a Bible moralisée. (20)
           
The background woman, below right, in Rembrandt's 1655 Louvre version accentuates the reverence of the moment for she appears to be humbled by a holy scene. "It's as if she has stumbled upon a hallowed event, the scene of a ritual, where the truth and meaning of life lie open and naked for all to see." (21) The form of the animal becomes a monument to both death and the on-going processes of life. Beast and sanguine beauty are unified in an artistic whole.
           

Bible Moralisée
"The Killing of the Fatted Calf and the Crucifixion
"
13th Century

Rembrandt van Rijn
Detail "The Flayed Ox" 1655
The Louvre, Paris.
           
The vicissitudes of life's rewards and darkest depths were not foreign to Rembrandt. He personally dealt with the loss of his wife, Saskia, and two of his children. One year after his Louvre version was completed, the artist was unable to cover his debts, which forced the Dutch Supreme Court to declare him bankrupt. An inventory of his possessions was ordered and these articles, including his house, were sold the following year.
           
           
 

Van der Poel's Imagery
 
           

Egbert van der Poel
"Barn Interior" 164[6]
After Treatment

Egbert van der Poel
Detail "Barn Interior" 164[6]
After Treatment
           
Van der Poel's "Barn Interior" can now be seen in a larger context to include benign genre aspects as well as more profound spiritual elements. The overpainting of the flayed animal--so dramatic in its historical and religious implications, so important to the overall composition--can only be attributed to a later lack of understanding of the animal's implications and significance. The comprehension of the transient nature of the carcass as a representation of life and its ephemeral fragility provides an understanding of related themes in other sections of the painting.
           
           
Footnotes    
(16) Several references in this section from Niels Bergervoet's on-line article Rembrandt and the Slaughtered Ox. http://knol.google.com/k/niels-bergervoet/rembrandt-and-the-slaughtered-ox/27a95txs3kjq7/11. Accessed 12/7/08.
(17) Several references and select phrases in this section from Don Gray's insightful article Rembrandt van Rijn, 1606­1669, Carcass of Beef (Flayed Ox), 1655, Louvre Museum, Paris, France. http://www.jessieevans-dongray.com/essays/essay088.html. Accessed 12/6/08.
(18) Haak, Bob. Rembrandt: His Life, His Work, His Time. Abrams Press, New York. 1969. p.252
(19) Gray, D.
(20) This image represented in Bergervoet, N.
(21) Gray, D.
           
           

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The Flayed Pig, Related Themes

 





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