The dodo is together with the infamous Tyrannosaurus Rex the best-known of the extinct species. The bird lived on the island of Mauritius. Less than a century after a handful of men colonised its island the dodo was extinguished by the end of the 17th century: “dead as a dodo”.
Some dodos were shipped to Europe, certainly one lived in London in 1638. Others were probably sent as stuffed animals.
There are less than fifteen paintings and a fair number of drawings with dodos known from the first half of the 17th century.
Those paintings are all linked with Prague and Utrecht. In Prague the eccentric Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II had a living or stuffed dodo, which one of his many painters, Roelant Savery, used as a model. Savery sometimes included this strange bird in his so-called paradise landscapes, most of which he painted in Utrecht. In that same Dutch town his assistant and nephew, Hans II Savery, also painted a few dodos, as did another Dutch painter, Gillis Claesz. de Hondecoeter.
So dodos got included in a few extremely rare landscapes holding many animals, just like in our painting: a small, but o so rare detail. There are only two 17th century paintings known with large dodos.
About the dodo
The dodo may be long gone, but this unfortunate flightless bird is certainly not forgotten. It is the ultimate icon of premature extinction.
Dodos lived only on the island of Mauritius, in the W. part of the Indian Ocean. The bird, which was bigger than a turkey, had no natural predators. It laid one egg per year and it could not fly, but it was far less clumsy and fat than its historical reputation.
After European sailors appeared on its island the bird became extinct in less than a century. During the 17th century the human population on Mauritius was very limited, it probably never exceeded 50 people, but the species was barely clinging to existence. The dodo must have been hunted down by men for its meat, although that was tough (except for its breast) and not very tasteful. There were far better animals to eat on the island and from its surrounding sea. The first Dutchmen on Mauritius called the bird therefore also “walghvogel”, “disgusting bird”. But the sailors brought rats, cats, dogs and pigs, later also deer, goats and monkeys. These animals raided the dodo’s nests and brought along unknown diseases. And men cut down palm and ebony trees ...
The first mention of a dodo was by Dutch sailors in 1598, the last reliable sighting was in 1688 by the Dutch governor of the island, Isaac Johannes Lamotius.
All that remains of the dodo is a dried head and part of a single foot, in the Oxford Museum of Natural History, a skull at the University of Copenhagen Zoological Museum and the upper jaw and leg bones in the National Museum of Prague.
There are less than twenty skeletons - in varying degrees of completion - at museums in Europe, the United States and Mauritius.
A large number of bones have since the 1860s been found in the Mare aux Songes swamp in Mauritius, but its government has banned the exports of dodo bones.
Aside from the phrase "as dead as a Dodo", the dodo bird's chief contribution to cultural history is its cameo in Lewis Carroll's “Alice's Adventures in Wonderland” (illustrated by Sir John Tenniel), where it stages a "Caucus Race". It is widely believed that the Dodo was a stand-in for Carroll himself, whose real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. Take the first two letters of the author's last name, and the fact that Carroll had a pronounced stutter, and you can see why he identified so closely with the long-gone Dodo.
It is not known where the name dodo comes from. Its first written record is in the letter of an Englishman in 1628 “very strange fowles, called by the portingalls (Portuguese) a Do Do”. Could it refer to the sound that the bird made or is there a link with some Portuguese words, as they were the first Europeans to discover the island in the early 16th century? The Dutch also used to call it a “dodaers” (its earliest mention is in 1602), meaning “fat bottom” or “dronte”.
About 17th century paintings with dodos
There are less than fifteen first half 17th century European paintings with dodos known; almost all of them are in museums. The majority of these paintings, eight, have been painted by Roelant Savery, almost all of them after his final settlement in Utrecht in 1619. Two other Utrecht painters also painted some dodos before the end of the 1630s: Roelant’s assistant and nephew, our Hans II Savery, and Gillis Claesz. de Hondecoeter.
In only two of this limited number of paintings one sees a large dodo, in all the others it is just another bird among numerous animals, as is the case in our painting.
In most paintings, and also in the drawing by Adriaen Pietersz. van de Venne, one sees a static dodo, a fat bird with hanging wings and a bushy tail, often looking left.
The three dodos from the drawing by Roelant Savery from the Crocker Art Gallery in Sacramento served as a model for more vital animals: for several of his own and of his nephew’s (our Hans II) paintings, plus of one painting by Gillis Claesz. de Hondecoeter:
- the right animal that is drinking served as a model for Roelant’s Reims dodo and for the de Hondecoeter dodo in the collection of the Duke of Northumberland;
- the small dodo in the middle, which is partly seen from the back, can be found back in his Zoological Society painting in London;
- in our painting by Hans II one finds the left, stepping, dodo. Strangely, the feet of the dodo, both in the drawing and in our painting, are webbed;
- all three animals from the drawing can be seen in the Bonhams painting by Hans II: two in the lower right and a small one in the upper left corner.
Remains the question if Roelant Savery ever saw a life dodo. Did Rudolf II have a living dodo in his zoo or did Savery make sketches of a stuffed animal in the Prague castle? Fact is that the Narodni Natural History Museum of Prague does have a fragment of a dodo skull and three dodo bones in its collection. Living animals did reach Europe: a dodo lived in London around 1638; it was kept in a chamber as a curiosity. From another dodo, in Amsterdam around 1626, it is not known if it was a live or a stuffed example.
To my comparative paintings I have also added a miniature holding a dodo that was painted by Ustad Mansur for the Indian Mughal Emperor Jahangir from his menagerie in Lahore. It probably dates from around 1625, that is from shortly before the Shah’s death.
Among the photographs of my comparative works I have tried to show a general view of the paintings, each time followed by a detail holding the dodo in that particular work.
About Roelant and Hans II Savery
Roelant was a Dutch painter of Flemish origin
Courtrai 1576 – 1639 Utrecht
Hans II was a Dutch painter
Haarlem (circa) 1589 – 1654 Utrecht
Roelant’s Protestant parents fled from Courtrai in 1580 to Bruges. They soon left Flanders for Holland and finally settled in Haarlem in 1583; Roelant was then seven years old.
Roelant was a pupil in Amsterdam of his elder brother, Jacob (1566 – 1603). Their oldest brother, Hans I (circa 1564 – circa 1629), was a marine painter in Haarlem.
When Jacob Savery died of the plague in 1603, his eldest son of seven children, our Hans II, then fourteen years old, was taken in by his uncle, Roelant.
After his brothers’ death Roelant Savery continued Jacob’s workshop in Amsterdam, but one year later he was invited to Prague by agents of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II.
Rudolf II (1552 – 1612) was the successor of Maximilian II in 1576. Rudolf moved the capital of the Holy Roman empire in 1583 to Prague, as that town would be easier to defend against a potential Turkish invasion.
He was a dreadful politician, but a great master of arts, science, astronomy, occult learning and music. The emperor possessed many animals, divided over several zoos, menageries and aviaries in and around the fortress of Prague. He had Europe’s most expensive Wunderkammer (cabinet of curiosities) of “naturalia” (exotic shells, coral, stones, stuffed animals and flowers) and of “artificilia” (sculptures, coins, paintings, works of art and mechanical devices). After the Emperor’s death in 1612 part of his collection was brought to Vienna. What had remained in Prague was looted by Swedish troops in 1648/49.
Hans joined Roelant at the court of Emperor Rudolf II in Prague:
- either immediately in 1604;
- or possibly a few years later in 1608 (after Roelant’s return from a two-year trip trough the Tirolian Alps).
In Prague and Tirol Roelant produced some 70 paintings and 200 drawings.
After the death of the emperor Roelant (and Hans?) returned twice to Holland:
- in June 1612 for the second marriage of his sister Maeijken;
- in 1613 to arrange the heritage following the decease of Hans’ II mother, who was a sister of Roelant;
Roelant (and Hans?) possibly returned to the empirial court and Roelant became “camerschilder” of Rudolf’s successor, Emperor Maththias, but this probably for a relatively short period of time. Rudolf returned to Holland by 1615. Rudolf and Hans first lived in Amsterdam, before settling in Utrecht at the start of 1618. Rudolf never married. Rudolf and his nephew lived together in Utrecht until Roelant’s death in February 1639. At the age of circa 50 Hans married their 42-years old housekeeper just a few months later, in May. The couple, who had been together already for a long time, had no children.
In Utrecht Roelant became a very successful painter. In 1626 he painted for the States of Utrecht a wedding gift for Stadtholder Frederic Henry and Amalia van Solms; the States payed him the huge amount of 700 guilders for the Paradise, today in the Gemäldegalerie of Berlin, that also holds a dodo. Several European courts ordered paintings from Savery.
Roelant and Hans II worked more and more often together.
In his final years, Roelandt was in weak health both physically and mentally, so that Hans had to finish several of his uncle’s works. It is almost impossible to differentiate between the works of the two Saverys dating from that period.
Roelant, who had been a very succesfull painter, was declared bankrupt less than half a year before dying in February 1639. He had been cheated by his niece’s husband, Cornelis de Bruyn, who was a parttime art dealer. In 1640 de Bruyn was sentenced for having made Roelant at several occasions drunk, so that he would sign fake debentures, and also for having sold stolen property (paintings) from Roelant.
Circa 1650/51 Hans is documented in England, where he painted the dodo, today at the University Museum of Natural History in Oxford. Hans died a few years later in Utrecht in 1654.
About our painting
Humanist culture in 16th century Europe tried to know the world, both the macrocosmos and the microcosmos. Nature was part of that knowledge and therefore Roelant Savery regularly painted, flower still lifes and Biblical and mythological landscapes populated by numerous animals: Paradise, the Ark of Noah, After the flood, Orpheus and the animals, etc. with domestic, wild and exotic animals and birds. Savery’s perception of the creation was positive, het wanted to show its abundance, focusing also on uncommon, rare, unknown animals that he had seen in Prague’s zoos, such as the dodo and the cassowary. Hence the success of these paintings of Roelant and of Hans II, then and today.
The signature in the present painting corresponds to the one in a painting that was sold at Sotheby’s, London, in December 1999 and which Dr. Joaneath Spicer endorsed as an autograph work by Hans II Savery.
Having been so strongly influenced by his uncle, it is not surprising that Hans would also have painted his vision of a harmonious Paradise, be it only inhabited by birds, both European and exotic ones: one recognizes in our painting pelicans, ostriches, cassowaries (with their typical helmet-like casque on their head), peacocks, turkeys, herons, ducks, chickens, doves, an eagle, a crane, a dodo, etc. Judging by the dendrochronological research made on our panel in 2015, the painting must date circa 1639, that is around the date of death of Roelant Savery.
Why should you buy this painting?
Because it must be one of the very last 17th century paintings still available representing a dodo; the others are all in msueums.