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Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Roelant Savery

Tower of Babel, 1602, Roelant Savery
Roelant Savery, 1661, Cornelis de Bie
"If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?" Barbara Walters was famous for asking that type of question as she interviewed the rich and famous celebrities over the course of her long career as a television journalist. I'm not sure if she ever asked a similar question regarding birds, but if not, let me be the first. "If you were a bird, what kind of bird would you be?" I'd probably be whatever kind of bird it is which leave its "artwork" all over the hood of my car. If Ms. Walters or I were to ask that question of the 17th-century Dutch painter, Roelant Savery, he'd probably cite the Dodo. I suppose most people have heard of the Dodo at one time or another, usually preceded by the word "dumb" as in "dumb Dodo" or "dumb as a Dodo." Some might even have thought the avian creature was mythological. It wasn't, though it's been extinct now for roughly four-hundred years. Roelant Savery had a love for painting birds and other animals back at a time before the Dodo became extinct. He did so several times, using it in several of his "Paradise" paintings. I'm not exactly sure why; God knows it was probably the ugliest bird that ever walked the earth. That's right, the Dodo was flightless; and according to early accounts by Dutch sailors, it came by its reputation as not-too-bright quite honestly.

The Edwards Dodo, 1626, Roelant Savery
(The title derives from the owner of the painting.)
Dodo Head, 1638, Cornelis Saftleven,
probably the last painting of a Dodo done
from life. (See what I mean by ugly?)
Roelant Savery has the misfortune to be remembered as the foremost painter of the Dodo. That is, indeed, unfortunate in that he was really pretty good at painting virtually all birds and (if somewhat stylistically) most animals. He was also quite adept at flowers. The problem with his work is that his art training was relatively limited (his only training came from a relative--his older brother). Also, his career fell during the Mannerist period, which is usually seen by art historians as something of a poor stepchild of the Renaissance. As for Savery's affinity for the Dodo, the name pretty much says it all, derived from the Dutch word, Dodaars, which means "fat-arse" (an apt description). As for Savery, one glance at his portrait (above, right) would suggest he wasn't exactly svelte. The bird was first encountered by Dutch sailors around 1600 on the small, uninhabited island of Mauritius, east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. The Dodo had long before became to fat to fly from eating terrestrial creatures. Also, they had no natural enemies and no experience with a human presence. Thus they were easy prey for hungry seamen who considered them too "dumb" to take flight--hence their reputation for stupidity, and the major reason they became extinct.

The Dodo Preening Itself, 1626, Roelant Savery.
(Note the fat arse.)
Roelant Savery was born in 1576. His family lived in Kortrijk (the Flanders area of far western Belgium). They were Protestant Anabaptists. When the Spanish conquered the area in the 1580s, the family fled north to Haarlem in the Netherlands where young Roelant grew up to follow in the footsteps of his older brother, Jacob. The younger Savery's Tower of Babel (top) dates from this period in his life.

Adam and Eve in Paradise--the Fall of Man, 1618, Roelant Savery, Cornelis van Haarlem
Still life, 1624, Roelant Savery
With no more training than this sort of "family apprenticeship," Roelant Savery moved to Prague in 1604 to become a court painter for Emperors Rudolf II and his brother, Mathias. Around 1616 Savery moved back to Amsterdam, then settled in Utrecht two years later. There he spent the rest of his life, becoming by 1620 one of the most successful painters in the city. His Adam and Eve in Paradise--the Fall of Man (above) is typical of Savery's work from this period. The floral Still-life (left) from 1624, is the largest work Savery ever painting, measuring four feet tall by two feet, seven inches wide (130x80cm). It is said to contain 44 different species of animals and 63 species of flowers. That would make it a rather lively still-life. Speaking of lively, Savery's Landscape with Birds (below) presents something of an aviary compendium of virtually every bird known to man...or at least known to Savery.

Landscape with Birds, 1628, Roelant Savery.
Notice the inclusion of the Dodo in the lower right corner of the painting.
Although his work was popular and he had a number of students, Savery's downfall was alcohol. Every painter has two basic goals in life, to become good at what he or she does, and to remain solvent. Ironically, while he was a decent painter and succeeded in being popular, Savery failed miserably at the latter, declaring bankruptcy in 1638. He died less than a year later. Like the Dodo, he became extinct.

Pillage of a Village, 1626, Roeland Savery, depicting a scene from the Thirty Years' War in Europe. During this dark period of history, many were concerned by looting of the type presented in this work. The structure of this panel is inspired by the Massacre of the Innocents, ca. 1565-67, by Pieter Bruegel, the elder.


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