Described in a masterful understatement as being “among the most aggressive of all poultry”, geese can be fearsome birds. They were first domesticated in Europe several millenia ago, and since then have provided meat, eggs, fat and their downy feathers to keep people fed, greased and warm.
This weekend I’m looking at paintings of geese: today my subjects are the birds themselves, then tomorrow I go in search of the Goose Girl, which I promise won’t be a wild goose chase.
Geese feature in some of the oldest surviving paintings of birds, in this wall painting from the tomb of Itet, Meidum, which is estimated to be from about 2600-2550 BCE. That makes these paintings about four and a half millenia old, which is hard to grasp.
They also have good roots in the northern Mediterranean civilisations of Ancient Greece and Rome. David Rijckaert’s undated painting of Philemon and Baucis Giving Hospitality to Jupiter and Mercury tells the mythical story of this elderly and poor couple, who gave hospitality to the gods Mercury (left) and Jupiter (left of centre) seated at the table. In order to entertain them, the couple decide to slaughter the goose they kept, probably for a feast or special occasion. But first, they have to catch the bird, as shown here.
Geese were, and still are, common in the countryside, so started to appear as staffage in landscape paintings.
There’s a small flock of them at the lower right in Rubens’ wonderful celebration of harvest, Landscape with a Rainbow from about 1638, in the last couple of years of his retirement to his country estate. He really seems to be celebrating the sights of life here.
One of their more evocative appearances in painting is in Jean-Léon Gérôme’s early work Recreation in a Russian Camp, Remembering Moldavia from 1855. The artist claimed to have witnessed this scene when travelling down the River Danube: a group of Russian soldiers in low spirits is being uplifted by making music, under the direction of their superior. In that marvellous sky, a skein of (wild) geese are on the wing. You can almost hear their honking as the soldiers break into song.
Gustave Doré captured a very different moment, a little after dusk, in his Evening in Alsace from 1869. Four young men are squeezed into an open window as they try to charm the four young women standing below. But along comes a flock of geese to join in and ruin their chances.
In Marie Spartali Stillman’s charming (and undated) Farm Scene, painted when she was on the Isle of Wight one summer early in her career, a small flock of domestic geese have walked out from a farmyard to amuse the small girl. The birds tells us we’re in the country.
Another undated painting from the late nineteenth century, this time by Gaetano Chierici, calls on our experience of goose behaviour, and their size. An infant has been left with a bowl on their lap, and that room is invaded first by chickens, then by those large and aggressive geese. The child’s eyes are wide open, their mouth at full stretch in a scream, their arms raised, and their legs are trying to fend the geese away.
Domestic geese aren’t particularly seasonal, apart of course from their traditional unfortunate end at Christmas, but Adolf Lins has used them to capture warm sunshine in his A Summer Day, Geese by a Pond from 1905.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the rise of interest in wildlife painting brought different species and habitats to the canvas.
I’m still amazed that one of Elizabeth Nourse’s earliest surviving paintings is this very challenging Flock of Geese, from about 1883. Even with the aid of photographs this must have been extremely tough for a relative novice to paint so convincingly.
Winslow Homer’s Wild Geese in Flight from 1897 is, as you might expect, a masterful depiction of wild birds as they fly low over sand dunes, two apparently falling prey to a nearby hunter.
Then came specialist wildlife artists, including the father of the sub-genre, the brilliant Bruno Liljefors. After the First World War, he concentrated on the wildlife of Sweden’s coastal wetlands, including Bean Geese Landing above, and Geese in Wetlands below, both from 1921.
I haven’t looked here at the goose’s role in legend, lore and fable, but end this part with a true story of a goose in art, from Paul Gauguin’s time in Brittany.
When Gauguin stayed at Le Pouldu from 1889, he and others were accommodated by Marie Henry in her inn. Gauguin and his colleagues decorated the interior for her with their paintings. In 1893, when Marie Henry rented the building out, she removed as much as possible of the paintings which had been made there by Gauguin and others. But some were left behind. Over the years, they were covered with wallpaper and vanished, until they were rediscovered in 1924.
Among them is this wonderful painting of a goose, intended as a complement to Marie Henry.