A Feast for the Eyes?


Humans have long demonstrated an enormous appetite for animal flesh. At some point in history just about every creature has been hunted and considered food. And of those, birds have been among the most popular.

People think of chicken and turkey as the principal fowl for consumption. However, a few hundred years ago, the dietary range of European royalty and nobles far exceeded today’s standard domesticated fare. This is evident from both historical accounts and the fine arts.

Some Food for Thought

Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century art provides insights into a Western European culture obsessed with feathered trophies and wild game. In numerous works by Melchior d’Hondecoeter (like the one above), Jan Weenix (see below), Jean-Baptiste Oudry, William van Aelst, and Carstian Luyckx, ample collections of slain avifauna are depicted. From such still-life paintings, one can see that traditional meal favorites included dove, duck, goose, quail, pheasant, and partridge.

No doubt, the thematic display of limp animal carcasses, some bound and bloodstained, is disturbing to modern sensibilities. However, Europe’s aristocracy felt quite differently about these masterpieces. Patrons deemed game subjects a symbolic display of their power and wealth.1, 2 After all, the nobility were the ones who owned large estates of countryside and wilderness for hunting purposes. Moreover, some people of rising status borrowed upon this tradition as a means of conveying their own growing influence, which may explain why Rembrandt painted a self-portrait of himself holding a dead bittern by its legs.3


A Spread Fit for a King

The practice of showcasing one’s bounty can be traced well beyond Rembrandt and this period of game paintings. Prior accounts note many medieval kings and lords holding lavish banquets where attendees dined on bittern, swan, heron, and peacock.4 Some events such as the Feast of Swans (Edward I) and the Feast of the Pheasant (Philip the Good) were held to secure support for possible military campaigns.5, 6 Flaunting one’s affluence and means was a way to advance special causes and entice cooperation.

At celebratory banquets like these, food was not merely a gustatory experience; it was employed as an over-the-top embellishment. The most famous example of these is the boar’s head with an apple lodged within its mouth.7 But such entremets and subtleties could be far more extravagant. Take for instance a baked swan that spews fire—thanks in part to a technique enhanced by alcohol-dowsed cotton!8 Special effects in the medieval culinary arts were surprisingly innovative.

The entertainment value of meals could also be used to relay a message or theme. Some hosts imparted dishes with symbolic significance, as was the case of a feast honoring the newly installed King of England Henry V. At that event the monarch’s staff served his guests a couple dozen cooked swans bearing scrolls.9

Dynamic Roles of Birds in Culture

Just as people today think of birds as something more than merely a food source, the same of course was true of Europeans ages ago. In some cases exotic feathered creatures were portrayed as living subjects, as in this d’Hondecoeter painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Birds have served many cultural functions throughout history and continue to do so. Nevertheless, there is no denying the role fowl held in Western European societies, not just as game or fine art—but simultaneously as both.


  1. Henisch, BA. Fast and Feast: Food in Medieval Society. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1976. p. 229.
  2. Sullivan, SA. “Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait with a Dead Bittern.” College Art Association. The Art Bulletin 62, No. 2 (Jun., 1980). pp. 236–243.
  3. Sullivan, SA. pp. 236–243.
  4. Henisch, BA. p. 229.
  5. Strickland, M. “Treason, Feud and the Growth of State Violence.” Given-Wilson, C, et al (editors). War, Government and Aristocracy in the British Isles, c.1150–1500: Essays in Honour of Michael Prestwich. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 2008. pp. 104–107.
  6. Bowles, EA. “Instruments at the Court of Burgundy (13631467).” The Galpin Society Journal. Vol. 6 (Jul., 1953). pp. 41–51.
  7. Henisch, BA. p. 229.
  8. Scully, T. The Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 2005. p. 162.
  9. Henisch, BA. p. 233.

22 thoughts on “A Feast for the Eyes?

    1. It’s a window into human feeling and thought. Sometimes it reveals the ugly or cruel side of our nature, as some of these masterpieces do. Yet, there is value is understanding our history and how that relates to other lifeforms.

  1. It just reeks decadence…but in such a different form than that same attribute in the 21st century! Truly a window into time. (K)

  2. We weren’t royal, but I grew up eating pheasant, and bacon-wrapped dove or quail is a mark of a fine meal in some parts of Texas. In Cajun country, gumbos made with poule d’eau,, known to most people as the common coot, can be quite tasty, and often show up at bayou celebrations.

    The best analogy I can think of to the paintings you’ve shown are the Facebook postings of bird hunters. Hunting is a favorite recreation and big business here, and it’s considered de rigueur to offer up a photo of your haul for posterity. One of the primary differences between the time period you referenced and today’s avian sports might be the changed understanding of the resource. It’s hunters who are most heavily involved in waterfowl conservation, for example. They want to maintain a healthy population, in order to ensure continued good meals for coming generations.

    I went looking, and found a photo of my mother’s cousin Tom, who lived in Saskatchewan in the early 1900s. I’ve always enjoyed seeing him with his brace of birds, his gun, and his dog. His birds went to the table, of course — and wouldn’t have lasted long enough to have their portrait painted!

    1. Linda, Tom’s catch is quite impressive! Thanks for sharing his photo. I forgot about the tradition of hunters sharing pictures. The small county newspaper several decades ago (boy, time flies!) where I grew up printed photos of hunters posing with their recent hauls. Bucks were by far the most popular, but occasionally you would see a large turkey or two. Of course, long before then hunters such as Roosevelt and Leopold were at the forefront of the conservation movement. Audubon, too, was an avid hunter. While in the U.K., he realized how fortunate the U.S. was to still have pristine areas of wilderness and accompanying wildlife. In other words, what had happened in Europe in his lifetime could eventually occur here. While hunting personally has never been something of interest to me, I am grateful to all the folks who are interested in preserving that!

  3. Thanks for the interesting post, Michael :-). They look like still lives to me, with fowl instead of fruit. Interesting comments too. I totally feel the paintings are decadent too. And I wouldn’t have thought of the pictures of hunted game unless shoreacres had brought it up. So many of those pictures – man smiling with duck, man smiling with deer and man smiling with fish. I don’t think I have seen such photos with women, but I have met some female hunters. Those photos tend to weird me out a bit, but I think it is culinarily interesting that some people these days enjoy a wider variety of birds than the general meat-eating population. And I have read here and there that many hunters are involved in waterfowl conservation. I guess now we see photos of chicken mcnuggets and big macs on billboards instead of piles of dead birds with pretty plumage. Like some people already said, it is cool how art preserves windows into the past.

    1. Myriam, I like your point about the chicken McNuggets. Our food industry does offer a sanitized view. While the game still-life paintings seem cruel and decadent, they are more informative than today’s advertising. Hunters, too, have a far more intimate and realistic understanding of the process. Many of us today—and I include myself in this category—do sometimes feel uncomfortable with those pictures and especially with killing. Yet, on the other hand, I have little problem eating chicken or turkey. Things are rarely simple and clear-cut. No matter what our perspective is, though, I think we can learn from one another. I’m glad that Linda (shoreacres) brought up some of the complexities. You brought up some good points about the billboards and also about there being fewer female hunters than male. Lots of food for thought!

      1. I agree – there are lots of complexities in life and it does help that we can learn from one another’s different views and interpretations. Thanks for the brain food :-)!

  4. Audubon himself tasted many birds he shot and drew. His scientific observation was complete and personal and included if the bird was good eating…and on one occasion he ate a freshly caught perch within the throat of a Great Blue Heron he’d shot. In his day the Snowy egret was considered a delicacy. So surprising to our modern sensibilities on what is a food bird. And we do have the swamp chicken….moorhens, gallinules and the like. Fun post and birds were an exotic culinary spectacle for sure.

    1. Thanks, Judy; those are excellent points! Many people don’t realize that Audubon and other ornithological artists of that time shot birds to use as food and to pose for their paintings. In general, too, our ancestors had greater flexibility in their diets. Our modern culinary sensibilities, for the most part, are not nearly as adventurous.

      1. Especially Audubon on the posing as he insisted on drawing everything life sized and so needed the grid he put them on. Even the double elephant portfolio paper wasn’t enough for some birds hence the lifelike yet practical poses of neck down getting prey such as the great blue and great white….swan too I think.

      2. Indeed, his grid device (which he generously later shared with others), life-sized renderings, and dynamic poses are a big part of what made him so revolutionary. Sometimes he overdid the poses, but his work was quite impressive compared to his predecessors.

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