by Meg Van Cleve
Still Life with Hunting Trophies, an oil painting by the Dutch artist Jan Weenix, depicts a hunting scene that focuses primarily on the dead animals, or “trophies,” of a hunt. While the hunters themselves inhabit the background of the painting, the spoils of the hunt are on full display as larger-than-life figures inhabiting the immediate foreground. There is no question as to the fate of these animals; the bloody mouth of the deer and the limp neck and bodies of the two birds emphasize the finality of their death. Weenix paints these animals with ornate detail and care, highlighting the softness of the deer’s coat and the intricate feather pattern of the large white bird. Their bodies are illuminated by a soft light, shining also onto a strategically placed rifle decorated with red tassels, in case the viewer is at all questioning the intent of the hunt. However, there is a life to the scene despite physical indicators of death, exemplified by the lush background of flowers, grapes, and foliage, along with the living animals, like the monkey and dog, that visually sandwich the dead carcasses.
Memento mori is a Latin terminology meaning, literally, “remember you must die” (Pound). This concept is popular throughout art history, but especially in the still life movement as artists contrast vivacious life with markers of death and dying. The presence of a memento mori is a visual and philosophic reminder of the ephemerality of life, suggesting a need to acknowledge the dark parts of death in the midst of celebrating life. Still Life with Hunting Trophies portrays the primality of securing food, an act that takes one life in the quest of supporting another. Death is an integral part of the feast, and this fact is both beautiful and unsettling. The activity of the hunters and their animal counterparts does not detract from the sobering reality of death in the foreground, and Weenix captures both with complexity and honesty. Through the use of memento mori, Still Life with Hunting Trophies shows the duality of feasting and of worldly nature, punctuated by life and equally punctuated by death.
Pound, Cath. "Lush 17th-Century Paintings Are Striking Reminders of Mortality." Artsy, Artsy, 2019, https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-lush-17th-century-paintings-striking-reminders-mortality.