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Core Record

Title Boys with a Trapped Bird
Collection English Heritage (Wellington Museum, Apsley House)
Artist Neer, Eglon Hendrik van der (Dutch painter, 1634-1703)
Date Earliest possibly about 1660
Date Latest 1703
Signed yes

The birdcage is open; one bird is sitting on top of it, another has been caught by one of the boys below. Such pictures prominently figuring birds can often be appreciated on two levels – as the genre scenes they depict, and for their more hidden meaning, in which the bird can be interpreted in various ways, most commonly as a symbol of love in one or other of its manifestations (E. de Jongh, ‘Erotica in Vogelperspectief', Simiolus ,III, 1968–69, pp. 22–74). Birds in cages can symbolise love as imprisoning men and women, or as maidenhood which is shown as lost when the bird has flown.

Son and pupil of Aert van der Neer, Eglon Hendrick was born in Amsterdam and worked mainly in Rotterdam (until 1679), Brussels (1679–89) and Düsseldorf (1690–1703), where he was court painter to the Elector Palatine, Johann Wilhelm. He painted mainly genre scenes.

Current Accession Number WM 1587–1948
Inscription front uc (on base of birdcage) 'E. van der Neer'; front lr fleur-de lys; front ll '20'
Subject landscape; figure; allegory; animal (bird); everyday life
Measurements 25.5 x 20.4 cm
Material oil on wood (hardwood {oak})

There are examples of birds in cages symbolising love as imprisonment or as lost maidenhood in seventeenth-century Dutch paintings by Jan Steen (Leiden), Willem van Mieris (Hamburg), Pieter van Noort (Zwolle) and Pieter de Hooch (Cologne) (De Jongh, op. cit., figs. 19, 21, 23–24). Van der Neer's example is closest to representations of Cupid as a birdcatcher in seventeenth-century emblem books. In Daniel Heinsius, ,Emblemata Amatoria, 1608, no. 21, under the Petrarchan heading Perch'io stesso mi strinsi (Because I bound myself), Cupid watches while the bird he had helped to bind flies into its cage (reprint, Scolar Press, 1973, no. 21; De Jongh, op. cit., fig. 20; A. Henkel and A. Schöne, Emblemata, Handbuchzur Sinnbildkunst des XVI und XVII Jahrhunderts, Stuttgart, 1967, 756, repr. – a slightly different version in Heinsius, Het Ambacht van Cupido, 1615, no. 46). The birdcage hanging from the tree reappears in identical form in Van der Neer's painting and the composition as a whole is clearly linked with the emblem. Cupid as a bird catcher also occurs in another emblem book, Crispyn de Passe, Thronus Cupidus, Amsterdam, 1620, no. 2 (Henkel, Schöne, op. cit., 757).

But birds did not function exclusively as symbols of love; in images of children, parrots often symbolised docility and a willingness to learn. An emblem of a caged parrot appears in Jacob Cats's Proteus (Rotterdam,1627), with the motto ‘dwanc leert sanck', 'caged birds sing better' or 'discipline is the best teacher' – the apparent antithesis of Van der Neer's mischievious urchins and free-flown birds (see J.B. Bedaux, The Reality of Symbols: Studies in the Iconology of Netherlandish Art, 1400-1800, The Hague, 1990 p. 119).

Eglon van der Neer usually painted scenes of elegant genre and only rarely pictures of children (Hofstede de Groot 1908–27, VII, nos. 111–19). Comparable paintings of boys with a cat and/or birds are in the museums of Karlsruhe, St Petersburg, Stockholm (dated 1664) and Schwerin (dated 1679).

The composition of WM1587 must have proved popular: there are three versions known – in the Portland collection (Hofstede de Groot 1908–27, VII, no. 119; R.W. Goulding, Catalogue of the Pictures belonging to…the Duke of Portland, Cambridge, 1936, p. 211, no. 524); in the Castle Museum, Nottingham; and sold Sotheby's, 9 Dec. 1992, lot 142, all without the cage. A signed painting in the Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum, Brunswick (inv. 320) situates the same figures in a different landscape setting. The central figures were engraved in reverse in 1768 by William Walker (Boydell's Catalogue of Historical Prints, 1787, II, no. 32, as by Netscher).

For van der Neer see P. Hecht, De Hollandse Fijnschilders: van Gerard Dou tot Adriaen van der Werff, exh. cat., Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, 1989, pp.130–54.

Rights Owner Copyright English Heritage
Author C.M. Kauffmann, revised by Susan Jenkins



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