We don’t know the year or place of birth of Jan Weenix, who was probably born not far from Amsterdam between 1640-49. Although we know that he died in September 1719, three hundred years ago, we don’t know the exact day.
His father seems to have been a successful painter too, and there has been considerable confusion over the authorship of many paintings which were originally attributed to the father. Although Jan started off living in a castle outside Utrecht, his father got into financial difficulties and died soon afterwards. Weenix was admitted to the guild of painters in Utrecht by 1664.
His early painting of a Landscape with Shepherd Boy from 1664 reveals his true forte in the realistic depiction of the sheep and dog. Although he did paint several other landscapes, in at least one painting he enlisted the help of a landscape specialist, so didn’t consider himself particularly strong in the genre. That said, this landscape has a wonderful lightness.
More typical of his work during the early years of his career is The Prodigal Son from 1668. Against a background of classical ruins, an extended family is dining at the left. In the central spotlight is a young man dressed flamboyantly, presumably the prodigal of the title, bidding farewell to his aged father. At the right his horse is ready for him to depart.
Weenix then specialised in painting still lifes with dead game, which today appear horrific in their depiction of the slaughter of so many wild animals and birds.
His Still Life of a Dead Hare, Partridges, and Other Birds in a Niche from about 1675 is one of a large number of finely detailed and realistic paintings which he made in maturity.
In 1679, Weenix married, and the couple subsequently had thirteen children, although as was common at the time, several didn’t survive infancy.
These piles of animal corpses spilled out into a strangely dark countryside, in paintings such as his Still Life of Game including a Hare, Black Grouse and Partridge, a Spaniel looking on with a Pigeon in Flight from about 1680. These became popular at the time, and Weenix was commissioned to decorate the houses of the rich with large murals on canvas, and to paint series for European royal courts.
This Allegory of the Sense of Smell is one of those large murals on canvas, which is now in the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh. It is at once a painting of a framed painting, a landscape, and an allegory, with a bit of classical myth thrown in for good measure.
In his Hunting Still Life from about 1708, the dead game are piled together with a strange mixture of objects related to hunting. At the lower left is a ‘duck’ whistle, for example, used as a decoy when hunting wildfowl.
At some stage in his career, he also produced a series of fine watercolours showing bird specimens. This example of Merops apiaster, the European bee-eater, was painted from a stuffed example obtained from Ceylon.
Although Jan Weenix’s paintings may be distressing to the modern eye, he was one of the most accomplished and prolific painters of wildlife at a time when wild animals and birds were preferred dead, ready for the table. Goethe was so impressed with the paintings by Weenix that he saw in Munich that he dedicated a poem to his skill as an artist.