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The Revealing Tragedy of the Game Piece

by Alexander Thornburg

"Still Life with Hunting Trophies," Jan Weenix, Dutch, 1642?-1719. oil on canvas. Ackland Fund. Ackland Art Museum, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

In the painting Still Life with Hunting Trophies by Jan Weenix, the artist displays all the violence of feasting, exposing parts that are usually hidden, and makes it obvious how feasting is inherently violent. Weenix depicts the mangled corpses of hunted game, framing them with the tools of the hunt and permits the spectator to view an ongoing hunt immortalized in the background of the painting. The genre of works of art that Weenix participates in here, called game pieces, generally were painted for an influential, aristocratic, class of individual in the late 1800s to display their opulence and emphasize their wealth to guests. More strikingly, this painting emphasizes violence and the exploitation of nature by the aristocracy in the name of vanity.

While to the lens of anyone unfamiliar with the more gruesome acts of hunting it may seem to be a particularly tasteless and cold work of art, the owner of this particular game piece would feel pride at their guests viewing it. Weenix desires to emphasize the owners wealth through the painting, aggrandizing the basic instruments of hunting and inlaying gold in items as simple as falconry hoods and intricately decorating the gun. Moreover, Weenix depicts the crest of the owner on the cage in order to emphasize their status even further. An exotic monkey helps to add to the allure of the piece for those of the aristocracy as it suggests a level of wealth capable of surpassing national boundaries. This piece illustrates, for the owner, how far their power spans and their command over those beneath them - in the illustration of the loyal dog - as well as their capability to continue the hunt for as long as they desire with the background of the piece.

While the above might be true for one well-versed in hunting and of an aristocratic class, the opposite becomes true for a viewer unfamiliar with these social circles. The scene instead leaves the viewer sickened, and while the piece itself might be displayed as a trophy in one’s dining hall to remind guests of their wealth, it also seems to suggest the lengths at which the owner may go to preserve their overindulgent way of life. In the forefront, Weenix depicts the mangled corpses of a deer and a crane, boxed in by the gun, dog, and cage, which all serve as reminders of the tools that helped to hunt the beasts. Sunflowers turn down towards the corpses, almost as if they are weeping at the loss of life displayed as trophies. The dog itself, another tool of the hunt, looks saddened. His eyes are reddened, refusing to look at the kill, and ears downturned. The monkey, enraged and beating his chest, similarly displaced from his home further illustrates the lengths that aristocracy is willing to go in their exploitation of nature and colonialism. The cage itself takes on a new meaning, no longer is it emphasizing an owner’s power and ability to subjugate animals, but instead it becomes a symbol of colonialism as their crest serves as a flag to those whom they’ve conquered. Moreover, the ongoing hunt in the background seems to immortalize the process of the hunt, the darkening sky and barren desert that the hunters are coming from suggesting more than just a simple hunt, but an apocalyptic and doomed scene playing out in the background of a tragic funeral. The painting is enigmatic and subjective; relying on the interpretation of the viewer as to whether it will disturb, or please.


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