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Menagerie of Pieter Boel

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Painter and draftsman of animals for Louis XIV, Pieter Boel (1626-1674) is now widely recognized as one of the best animal painters of the past.This large-size book presents 40 paintings and drawings of this extraordinary observer of nature. His pieces were particularly lively because he was inspired by the living birds and mammals he was able to observe in the Versailles Menagerie, established by Louis XIV in 1664 and soon a model for all the European courts.

Text of Menagerie of Pieter Boel

Pieter Boel: Painter of the King and the Animal KingdomVersailles, spring of 1669. The kings golden mantle glitters in the sun as, under his proud gaze, international guests donning the most exotic livery, spotted and striped furs, and ostrich feathers parade amidst fountains and ponds. Some strut in shimmering hues, others move about restlessly, their huge crops shaking, while ebony-chested demoiselles with white crests compete in charm with their crowned African sisters and European cousins in their elegant black-and-white garb. Standing at his balcony, a Flemish painter observes them and fills hundreds of sheets of paper, his pencil swiftly capturing the details, movements and gazes of that cackling horde, and for the very first time making it the leading figure of studies on canvas. The painter was Pieter Boel, born in Antwerp on 22 October 1622 and buried in Paris on 3 September 1674. His drawings and canvases would be used for the cartoons to make tapestries for the cycle of Royal Months or Residences (Mois or Maisons royales) that Louis XIV of France commissioned from the Gobelins manufactory in 1668. But, above all, the leading players of this colourful cortege are lions, leopards, badgers and raccoons, ostriches, peacocks, pelicans, demoiselle cranes, crowned cranes and storks, not to mention elephants, eagles, marmots, foxes, flamingos and chameleons all of which were to be found at Versailles as the Sun Kings unusual guests in his new menagerie. Between 1669 and 1671, when Boel made more than 400 sketches and painted 86 canvases exclusively of animal studies, the still life genre was very much in vogue, particularly if it was the work of Flemish artists such as Jan Fyt and Frans Snyders, both of whom, according to some sources, may have taught Boel. Until then, however, no one had attempted moving life, particularly with such spectacular talent and such a keen spirit of observation. Charles Le Brun, Premier Peintre to Louis XIV and thus director of the decorative undertakings funded by the royal house, can be credited with recruiting Boel, a respected painter of animals, flowers, fruits, etc. according to the inscription under his portrait published in Antwerp in 1661 in Cornelis de Bies Het Gulden Cabinet to join a team of Flemish painters with a broad array of specialities. Some were skilled in architectural depictions, others in landscapes, and still others at portraying musical instruments and even vegetables and they all helped to prepare the drawings for one of the eras most important tapestry cycles: the Royal Months or Residences. Le Brun may well have had the chance to test Boels singular skill at portraying nature from life (or, as the French so eloquently term it, sur le vif ), if we accept the theory of lisabeth Foucart-Walter, published in the catalogue for the exhibition-dossier dedicated to Pieter Boel at the Louvre in 2001, that Boel was responsible for some of the animals in Le Bruns works completed in Paris as early as 1658 and 1664 (the dogs in two of the paintings from his Story of Meleager cycle and the birds in the cartoon for LAir, the study for one of the tapestries in his Elements series; Paris, Muse du Louvre, inv. nos. 2899, 2900 and 2998). Pieter was a 47-year-old widower when he left his native Antwerp; his wife, Maria Blanckerts, had passed away a decade earlier. Prior to the Parisian sojourns mentioned above, when he met Le Brun, Pieter had left the city to study in Italy (16471649), first in Rome and then in Genoa, where he viewed the works of Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione, also known as Il Grechetto, and completed the artistic training he had commenced with his father Jan Boel, an engraver and publisher. In 1669, he settled in Paris and thus joined the colony of Flemish painters residing in Gobelins, the quarter of the eponymous manufactory (now the 13th arrondissement of Paris), where he befriended fellow

The Months or Royal Residences: July, Vincennes High-warp tapestry, second cycle in gold; 385 5 645 Paris, Mobilier national, gmtt 108/7

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A doe of pure white among all breeds of fawn and peacocks so handsome, yet so full of scorn for ladies do covet their feathers to wear,

q Study of a blue peafowl

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(Pavo cristatus) Canvas; 123.5 5 199.5 Paris, muse du Louvre, Dpartement des Peintures, inv. 4032

and Persian goats, stags and deer,

A Study of a fallow deer and detail

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(Dama dama) Black pencil and pastel on buff paper; 29.5 5 43.5 Paris, muse du Louvre, Dpartement des Arts graphiques, inv. 19463 (detail)

q Study of an Eurasian lynx and details

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(Lynx lynx) Black pencil and pastel on buff paper; 28.5 5 43.5 Paris, muse du Louvre, Dpartement des Arts graphiques, inv. 19556 (detail)

i Studies of a red fox

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(Vulpes vulpes) Canvas; 85.5 5 117 Roubaix, La Piscine, muse dArt et dIndustrie Andr Diligent, 6020-37-24