The painting is of the old Frederiksborg Castle, Hillerød, Denmark, painted in 1584 or ’85. It depicts King Frederick II of Denmark (who was 50 at the time) hunting on the premises, which were originally known as estate Hillerødsholm. He acquired and renamed the entire property and turned it into a Royal hunting estate and Royal residence. A keen huntsman, Frederick used the castle with the neighbouring Bath House as a royal hunting lodge, centred as it was in the fields and forests he owned in North Zealand. He was described as hot-headed, vain, courageous and ambitious. He was a lover of hunting, wine, women and feasts; at his death (merely three years after this painting) it was a common opinion that he had drunk himself to death. He must have been quite the ladies’ man, as when he was a bachelor (sometime between 1570 and his marriage in 1572, aged 36 – 38) he courted Queen Elizabeth the I of England, who made him a Knight of The Garter and also presented him with several English Mastiffs. We can safely presume that these royal gifts were very choice dogs indeed.
The painting (oil on canvas, measuring 83 x 185 cm) is of good quality and great clarity. No absolute certainty about who the painter was: either Johannes van Wijck, born in Amsterdam and from from 1597 to 1611 active in Denmark; from 1598 to 1602, court painter to the Danish court; in 1604 working as a draftsman in a pattern tapestry workshop in Denmark; or Hans Knieper, also Dutch (could it be the same person with different aliases?), who was active as court painter in Denmark from 1577 and also provided designs for royal tapestries. The painting presently hangs at Gripsholm castle in Sweden, where the national portrait collection is housed. According to Flemming Rickfors, this painting, as well as other art treasures, were taken by King Charles Gustav X of Sweden during his military campaign against Denmark (see the banquet at Frederiksborg Castle, after the Treaty of Roskilde, Feb/March 1658. Note King Frederick the III’s fine hounds in the foreground).
It is, of course, a very important painting because of the dogs. On the left we see (you can view the enlarged image in great detail here) two very fine dogs indeed. They are very tall, elegant hounds, yet with strong bones and large feet. They look fit for work. The one to the left is definitely a male, with smallish rose ears and a very fine, long, greyhoundy head. The one next to it has a somewhat stronger head with cropped ears. He is most probably a male dog too, as he displays the utilitarian short crop used for working hounds and females were not normally hunted by the Royal Hunt of Denmark. The dogs are on the very fine slipping collar and leash of the type used for quick release of running (coursing) hounds.
Are we looking at the Great Danish dogs (“Mjøhund”), the very ancestors of our Great Dane? Could it be that these very dogs portrayed in this painting, are among the actual ancestors? I believe that it could very possibly be so. Don’t they look amazingly like Buffon’s Grand Danois, from his “Natural History: General and Particular” (published in 1781) ?
Look now to the middle of the picture. Next to the riding king there is another dog, much stockier, shorter in height, with a much shorter, blunt muzzle and a broad skull, large heavy ears and big soulful eyes that look up reverently to his master; the dog’s expression is priceless; it could also very well be a bitch. I can just about make out a collar around the dog’s neck, but no leash. Was she / he taken along just for training ? to be introduced to the Myndehund and the grounds ? or maybe the mastiff was an accomplished tracker (or catch dog) who could work off-leash ? We could be missing something here. Paintings of this type often had an ethographic context, they were telling a story. They were the official ‘photographic’ records of their era, valuable evidence in the study of court etiquette, social history, local customs and way of life in general. Did the monarch commission this painting specifically to commemorate a very significant story, three very special dogs, the start of a new era in his kennels ? and also as a reminder of his dalliance with the English queen, which earned him a rare title – and the best mastiffs a sportsman could have ever wished for ? was it the very beginning of the ‘blending’ program – the crossing of the Great Danish hounds with the English Mastiff – that he wanted commemorated in this piece? if this is indeed the case, then perhaps it is regrettable that the painting is no longer at it’s proper ‘home’ where Great Dane enthusiasts could visit and stand in awe in front of the very beginnings of our beloved breed, on the very spot where it all began…
But wait, why is the mastiff looking up to his Royal Highness so ? is the dog in awe of its new Master, perhaps a little sad, as it was recently taken from its home in England ? Or is this a little ploy of the artist to please the king, the English dog (or even more appropriately, bitch) given an expression of feminine submission to the Danish royal, as a symbol of the great queen whom he had ‘conquered’, albeit briefly ? the cocky Frederick not being the type who would refrain from boasting about his conquests, the court must have been all too well-informed at the time of the courtship and rather relishing in the gossip about what happened between their virile monarch and the fair Elizabeth…Maybe it was even Frederick who suggested it to his painter during a sitting session, sipping fine wine and rather pleased with himself. One can easily imagine him, arrogant & in a semi-permanent state of inebriation at the time the painting was in progress, being jovially indiscreet about the ‘English bitch’, royally under the influence and roaring with laughter…ah, to have been a fly on those grand, palatial walls !
To the right of the painting, we see the huntsman carving the carcass of a large stag, or Hart. The other huntsman on the left of the horse is resting a hunting lance against his shoulder. The one next to him is carrying a sword. What is he holding in his left hand, I can’t quite make out. But it was a successful hunt. The monarch is pleased. He is gesturing to the men, striking a majestic pose upon his magnificent steed. They are looking up to him respectfully, their hats removed. The hounds did well. The young man who is using a large cleaver, his short hunting knife hanging from his belt against his right thigh, is looking up towards the king, too. The stag’s left leg has already been removed from below the knee, as it was the ritual at par force hunt, to signify a royal kill, offered to the king. Remains from previous kills are seen on the foreground and behind the carcass, bare bones of deer lying on the ground, the fresh quarry’s huge antlers just visible at the very bottom of the painting. In the background, a rider is returning on horseback & leading a second horse to the side entrance of the courtyard, where more huntsmen are waiting, carrying lances. Fires are burning in the halls, as we can tell from the smoke swirling up from the chimneys, ready to cook the meat in the royal kitchens. Outside, swans are swimming in the lake, the royal banners flying on the turrets and spires. People are going about their business. A woman is carrying laundry to an outhouse. The sun is just behind clouds to the left. The air is still, the surface of the lake like a glass mirror. It is a very fine day, full of promises and exciting plans for a new strain of fine dogs. On the left of the picture, the royal subjects are enjoying themselves, swimming in the castle lake. A charming female figure is sitting on the bank, drying her hair in the sunshine. She evokes the image of the little mermaid of Copenhagen, although she was not going to come into existence, in the mind of Hans Christian Andersen originally, for another two and a half centuries. Isn’t art wonderful? we can even see, in this delightful, precious painting, the images that inspired Danish art across time…
But to return to our main theme, look again at the reddish-fawn and white sighthound. Doesn’t he look similar to Raro, the famed hound owned by Frederick’s grandson, King Frederick III of Denmark ? Raro was reportedly given as a gift to princess Magdalena Sibylle of Saxe-Weissenfels, who married Duke Friedrich I of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg (Thuringia, Germany). Could Raro (himself painted in 1665) be a descendant of the dog in Frederiksborg’s painting ? And could he be behind the Deutsche Dogge, who was still some two hundred years ahead into the future?
Who would have thought that one day we would be able to look at this precise time in history, when the Great Dane breed was being conceived ? What ancient breeds of dog can boast this almost photographic glimpse into such an important moment of their own past – their very genesis ? how many other breeds of dog can offer us such a fascinating journey in a time machine made of canvas, brushes, paints and human skill, allowing us to bask in the glorious sunlight of that momentous summer day in Northern Denmark, four hundred and thirty years ago?
What a joyous journey this has been… and long it may continue.
Colors, paintings, don’t they have a truly magnificent way of spinning a yarn?