It may be stretching a point to call a small fragment of a painting an ‘object’ – the more so as the small fragment depicts two apparently living animals who may or may not have actually been alive when they were painted. But I was so struck by these particular images that I thought they deserved a bit of further investigation: so here are the Golden Age Guinea Pigs!
They can be seen at the Mauritshuis in Den Haag, whither we had gone to catch the ‘Slow Food: Still Lives of the Golden Age’ exhibition, which ended on Sunday. (Since it seemed a bit decadent to jet over for just this event, we also took the opportunity to visit Leiden, and tick another great European botanic garden off our list – more on this soon.)
The still lives, in the museum’s new exhibition space, were well hung, well labelled and completely absorbing – the only disappointment being that they had sold out of the catalogue some time before, and had no plans to reprint.
But, of course, the permanent collection has to be one of the greatest in the world; since our only previous visit, the rooms had been completely re-hung, so we had a happy mooch round from the Goldfinch to the Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp to the Rembrandts to the View of Delft.
One of the greatest improvements (in my opinion, at any rate) is the re-siting on the wall of a room (as opposed to high on a staircase, where it used to be) of Paulus Potter’s masterpiece, The Young Bull. This enormous canvas – the proud farmer and his animals are almost lifesize – originally lived in the Prince William V Gallery, though it (along with most of the other notable pieces of art in Europe) was looted by Napoleon and spent twenty years in the Louvre.
Viewing it from closer than used to be possible enables one to see the staggering hyperrealism of the work – the ram’s eyes, the cow’s eyelashes, the frog. The technique of Potter (who painted this work when he was only about 22, and died of tuberculosis aged about 28) is staggering. But (again, to my eyes) viewing it more closely also intensifies the indefinably comic aspect of this group portrait?
However, it is not large but very small mammals that I am concerned with in this piece. Let’s look at two examples of ‘joint paintership’ in the Mauritshuis which involve Jan Brueghel I (1568–1625): one, A Garland of Fruit Surrounding a Depiction of Cybele (c.1620–2), was a collaborative effort with Hendrik van Balen (1574–1632); the other, The Garden of Eden with the Fall of Man (c. 1615), with the much better known Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640).
Jan Brueghel I was the younger son of Pieter Bruegel (note the lack of ‘h’) the Elder and younger brother of Pieter Brueghel (‘h’ added this time) the Younger.
His friend Rubens painted this wonderful portrait of Jan, his second wife and their eldest two children; and on Jan’s death from cholera, Rubens and van Balen were among the four executors of his will, the former also acting as guardian to the surviving Brueghel children.
Brueghel collaborated with van Balen on several ‘garland paintings’, whether secular (as in this case) or sacred (with the Virgin Mary at centre): Brueghel did the flowers and van Balen the figures. Similarly, Rubens painted the fleshy but at the same time almost ethereal Adam and Eve, while Brueghel provided the surrounding context of minutely observed plants and animals.
Which brings us to the guinea pigs. Cavia porcellus came originally from the Andes, and the species is thought to have been domesticated from a very early date, showing differences from the modern wild species. The indigenous South American peoples raised them to eat, but from their first importation to Europe by the Spanish and Portuguese in the fifteenth century, they have been popular first as exotic rarities, and later as pets.
And a pair of guinea pigs (as the sharp-eyed among you will already have noted) appears in both the the Brueghel pictures.
In Cybele, they are munching broad beans, in The Garden of Eden, peas – but they are clearly the same animals.
They also appear (perhaps unsurprisingly) in Brueghel’s own Entry of the Animals into Noah’s Ark (1613), now in the Getty Museum, this time nibbling on rather less fresh-looking peapods;
and in another version of the Fall of Man (1613: with the Fall very much in the background), formerly in the collection of the dukes of Northumberland; and in several more paintings, viewable here – always the same companionable pair, and always nibbling something.
The question inevitably arises – were these charming models the beloved pets of the Brueghel children? Or, more likely, did they form part of the famous menagerie of Archduke Albert and the Infanta Isabella, the Austrian and Spanish Habsburg cousins who were rulers of the Spanish Netherlands and whose court painter Brueghel became in 1609?
(Or were they even stuffed? Taxidermy did not really become an art (or science) until the eighteenth century, although you couldn’t really hold your own as an alchemist unless you had at least a crudely stuffed crocodile in your shop/laboratory.)
Prosaically, it seems most likely that, having painted them once in the early 1600s, Brueghel continued to repurpose the images – as he did with many others, notably the big cats and the magnificent grey horse. I wonder if the guinea pigs feature in any of his sheets of preparatory sketches?
(Interestingly, his son, Jan Brueghel II, who also cooperated with van Balen in painting very similar scenes, does not seem to have used them.) But the note of domestic calm and tranquillity this little pair introduces into the sometimes melodramatic scenes in which they appear is delightful. I must add guinea pig spotting to my other hobby of seeking the Ugliest Bambino in the World.