Dr Mark Stocker, Curator Historical International Art, explores a highly unusual set of etchings which depicts a day in the life of a huge, shaggy, brown bear.
In a pioneering set of prints, the Flemish artist Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder (c. 1520–1590) chronicled a day in the life of a huge, shaggy brown bear whose Latin name is Ursus arctos, hence my name for her: Ursula. They are based on keen observation of these animals and the 16 separate scenes comprise the closest that the 16th century got to cinematic animation.
Lost and Found: Gheeraerts and de Bye
Gheeraerts’s original prints are now regrettably lost, but they were still extant in 1664, over a century after they were made, when they were copied by Dutch artist Marcus de Bye (c. 1639–1688).
Te Papa is fortunate to own a near-complete holding of de Bye’s etchings, The set of the bears. They were acquired by the remarkable Lutheran bishop, liberal politician and refugee Ditlev Monrad, whose Old Master prints formed the basis of the Colonial Museum art collection in 1869.
Life can be lonely
In this blog, I will highlight the frontispiece and five of the more interesting scenes in the set – the fact is that bears are solitary creatures and don’t really do much except hunt for things to eat.
For whatever reason, people – and still more other animals – tend to give them a wide berth. Hence life can be unbearably lonely for poor Ursula! Little things like a colony of ants found under a stone can make her day. More on Ursula shortly.
Bears in the 16th and 17th centuries
Apart from a few that probably still survived in the Ardennes Forest, there were no wild bears in Flanders (present-day Belgium) in Gheeraerts’s time; and certainly none near The Hague, where De Bye operated the following century. They were familiar, however, as captive animals: luckier ones were tame (or dancing) bears, but others were baited: tethered to a chain and set upon by dogs, with inevitably bloody consequences for both parties. This barbaric practice continued in many countries till the 19th century.
Bad Queen Bess
Sad to say, Elizabeth I took after her father, Henry VIII, as a bear baiting buff and (quite coincidentally) Gheerearts’s son Marcus the Younger would become one of her most celebrated portraitists. But that’s another story.
Northern European artists always had a wider repertoire of subjects than Italians, and it’s no coincidence that the Dutch, Flemish and French artists monopolised animal and game art in the centuries of Gheeraerts and de Bye.
Indeed, de Bye made many animal prints based on drawings and paintings by his brilliant, short-lived contemporary Paulus Potter. Te Papa has several such prints in its collection, starring sheep, cattle, goats and lions, but The set of the bears is easily its most comprehensive holding in the genre.
Ursula looks for all the world like a supporting bear on a coat-of-arms as she leans against the ruined antique tablet that forms the frontispiece to the set. In Latin script and Roman numerals, we are pompously yet humorously introduced to our two artists and the dates of their respective series, Gheerearts (1559) and de Bye (1664).
A good feast
Brown bears have highly varied diets, and are less carnivorous than we think. Their diet ranges from grass, berries and bulbs to ants, fish (their American cousins, especially, are accomplished anglers) and ungulates (hoofed mammals), both wild and domestic.
In this plate, Ursula appears to have found a hunk of carrion over which she squats and gnaws away. This is nature ‘red in tooth and claw’ and is not, I’m afraid, particularly vegetarian-friendly.
A word to learned antiquarians
Note the fragment of a classical frieze beside Ursula in this plate. It’s included for several reasons. Firstly, I think Gheeraerts (and de Bye) were keen to be regarded not as lower-class animal artists, but as men of classical learning.
Antiquity was very modish in these late Renaissance times. But at a deeper level, the artists are commenting on the rise and fall of civilisations. Clearly the landscape depicted in these prints once had fine architecture in its vicinity, but now it has reverted to a primeval state, where bears rule.
A tantalising find
In this plate, an animated Ursula has seen something – possibly a snake, lizard or other potential prey, obviously near the foreground plant. Or maybe it’s just some fungi.
We will remain tantalised, and the secret remains hers. In this image, almost a bear portrait, the dense fur on Ursula’s shoulder is particularly exaggerated. Professor Charles T. Robbins, of the Bear Center at Washington State University, calls the prints ‘a bit stylized’ but commends de Bye for being ‘as accurate as you could expect for the time’.
Getting our bearings
I asked Professor Robins about the picturesque landscape setting. He believes it was artistic imagination that prevailed rather than any particular knowledge of bear country. But it would be wrong to assume – from today’s threatened bear population – that such scenes should be set in a forest. If anything, bears prefer grasslands to dense forests, and in the Middle East they even live in desert-edge habitats. The presence of a distant goatherd and his small flock in one print in the series certainly indicates these are grasslands.
This is the life…
In three prints, Ursula is depicted eating from a ceramic bowl. Its origins remain obscure. Was it dropped by a startled shepherd or goatherd at the sight of her? This again must remain unanswered. The key thing is that she’s now its sole owner, and contentedly feeds from it, holding the bowl between her paws.
Well, another day has gone by for Ursula and in the last print in The set of the bears, she is fast asleep.
Thank you for bearing with me on this day in her life. And if, by any chance, you find Ursula dead or alive in plate 6 from the set – our one missing print – a bear-hug awaits you from the Curator, Historical International Art and the rest of our team!
I am grateful to Professor Charles T. Robbins, Bear Center, Washington State University, for promptly and helpfully answering my questions.
See the entire Set of the bears, on Collections Online