Thanksgiving, or Frans Snyders in the Kitchen

Frans Snyders, Still Life with Dead Game, Fruits, and Vegetables in a Market (1614), Art Institute of Chicago.

by Brooke Chilvers

This year we were a dozen around Janis’s Thanksgiving table, but for the life of me I had no recollection whatever of 2020’s pre-vaccination feast for two — just Rudy and me. I know I didn’t cook an entire turkey, and I’m not above ordering a Cracker Barrel “Heat n’ Serve,” but still.  

The moment my legs slid under Janis’s elegant table, however, with its cobalt blue cut-glass lead crystal and family silver, the image came to me of last year’s highlight: Opening the precious four-legged tin of confit de canard we’d hauled back from France. I used its precious silky fat to make pommes de terre sarladaises, another blessing from the southwest of the country. Ah, memory.

Now, the bounty of this year’s feast went hand-in-hand with the remarkable large painting by Flemish artist Frans Snyders (1579– 1657), Still Life with Dead Game, Fruits, and Vegetables in a Market, we’d just seen at the Art Institute of Chicago. 

Snyders’s proud purveyor of wild flesh – including a swan, a peacock, and a neat brochette of songbirds, along with a nice little roe deer buck, a boar’s severed head, and several hares – displays his wares alongside the hunting season’s other offerings of cauliflower, winter greens, figs, and grapes.  I thought I perceived heads of garlic, but perhaps they were small gourds.  

The designation “Flemish” is complicated by physical, cultural, and religious conflicts in the region that date back to the interminable wars of the 16th century Holy Roman Empire.  Flemish then encompassed today’s Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg, and the Pas-de-Calais département of France.  

Other great Flemish artists flourished despite the turmoil that ultimately led to the division of the Low Countries, in 1581, into the Calvinist United Provinces (or Dutch Republic), and the Roman Catholic Southern or Hapsburg Netherlands, controlled first by Spain, then by Austria, and finally French Revolutionary armies until 1815. 

Rembrandt (1606–1669) lived in republican Amsterdam, and Rubens (1577–1640) in Counter Reformation Antwerp. Oft-devastated Antwerp also spawned Anthony van Dyck (1599–1641); the Breughel dynasty (Pieter Bruegel the Elder, father of Pieter Brueghel the Younger and of Jan Brueghel the Elder, father of Jan the Younger — and yes, they spelled the name differently); and  Franchijs Snijders – pronounced Sneeders, with big emphasis on the first syllable – if you’re trying to track down his home in Antwerp, Belgium.

Frans Snyders (modern spelling), the prolificgenre painter of larders, markets, and majestic, dramatic hunts was born into working-class comfort; his father was a wine merchant with a well-situated inn who also sold picture frames.  The teenager was apprenticed to Pieter Brueghel II, learning by copying Pieter’s father’s famous works or Pieter’s own popular grotesque fantasy figures. 

But it was Jan Brueghel II who helped Frans acquire patrons and travel to Milan where he copied works from Cardinal Federico Borremeo’s large collection, studying Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro and Titian’s revolutionary use of vivid colors.  He likely first met Rubens there. 

In 1609, Snyders returned to Antwerp just as the Twelve Years’ Truce brought respite from the hostility between Spain and the United Provinces – and with it prosperity and good appetites, also for art. 

Snyders and Rubens soon began their 30-year collaboration, which would inform Frans’s choice of subjects, affect his increasingly fluid brushstroke, and inspire his composition.  Snyders painted the animals in Rubens’s Diana and the Nymphs Sleeping and Diana Returning from the Hunt, as well as eight hunting scenes for King Philip IV’s hunting lodge, Torre de la Parada, and for his summer quarters in Madrid’s royal palace, the Alcāzar.  Snyders’s Calydonian Boar Hunt and Diana and the Nymphs Hunting Deer are among the few survivors of the 1734 fire that devastated the palace.

Tony Aiardo, Bounty of the Hunt and Harvest (2003)

Until the 20th century, art was judged according to its subject matter.  Landscape, floral, and animal art always ranked below historical, biblical, or mythological subjects. But Snyders ennobled his subject by depicting princely sport and noble venison.  This appealed especially to a new class of landed gentry: the Catholic haute bourgeoisie, which obtained its seigniorial titles and rural estates for services rendered to the Hapsburgs. 

Victual-rich works were also popular with the prosperous urban burgher class. So, in addition to his enormous hunts,  Snyders painted busy kitchen scenes, bursting larders, and tables laden with dewy, rare fruits and red lobsters served on white ceramic Ming-dynasty platters.  Genre painting was well suited to an age that encyclopedically described flora and fauna. 

Snyders increased his productivity with assistance from several apprentices, including the brilliant Cornelius and Paul de Vos, who became his brothers-in-law when Frans married their sister Margiete in 1611.

Snyders left no writings about his techniques, and rarely dated or signed his works. We know he made preparatory drawings in black chalk, filling in the details with pen and ink.  He applied sequences of transparent glazes to create his luminous surfaces.  He made multiple copies of his most successful paintings, and repeated his best images by “cutting and pasting” them into different paintings. 

Unlike the ruined Rembrandt of the Dutch Golden Age, the Flemish Baroque master died a very rich old man.

This is where I must tell you that Janis and her husband Chris’s talented friend, Tony Aiardo, painted for them his version of a Snyders he calls Bounty of the Hunt and Harvest. It proudly matches the abundance of both their table and their Wisconsin wingshooting, especially when they serve wild birds and grapes (their Umbrian recipe) that we prepared with whole quail, quartered partridges, pounded pheasant breasts, and their homemade veal boudin. I can’t resist sharing it:

Now that I think of it, I can’t remember last year’s Christmas dinner either!

______________________________________________________________________________ 

As flights from Southern Africa shut down just as final preparations for the 2022 hunting convention season are in full swing, Brooke Chilvers is indeed thankful, this Thanksgiving, that her husband is retired from the safari business.