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Object: The set of the bears. Untitled plate 13

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Title The set of the bears. Untitled plate 13
Production de Bye, Marcus (etcher), 1664, Netherlands
Gheeraerts I, Marcus (after), 1559
Medium summary etching
Materials ink, paper
Classification prints, etchings, works on paper
Technique etching
Dimensions Image: 108mm (Height) x 142mm (Width)
Support: 109mm (Height) x 144mm (Width)
Credit line Gift of Bishop Monrad, 1869
Registration number 1869-0001-73

Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder (c. 1520–c. 1590) was a Flemish printmaker and painter associated with the English court of the mid-16th century and mainly remembered as the illustrator of the 1567 edition of Aesop's Fables. He was a keen innovator and experimented with etching at a time when woodcut and increasingly engraving were dominant techniques. For example, his 1562 bird's-eye view of the town of Bruges was etched on no fewer than 10 different plates, and the resulting map measures 1m x 1.8m. Although very highly regarded as a printmaker at the time, his fame has been somewhat eclipsed by his son Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, who revolutionised portraiture at the courts of Elizabeth I and James I. Gheeraerts was clearly a highly intelligent observer - and probably admirer - of animals, but deploying this subject matter was also making a virtue out of necessity, as with the Protestantism that he espoused, the market for religious art had come to almost a standstill. His animals are characterised by a greater naturalism than that seen in counterparts of his predecessors, notably the woodcuts of Virgil Solis and Bernard Salomon. He would be much imitated through the later 16th and 17th centuries. The set of the bears precedes Gheeraerts' illustrations to Aesop's fables, which contains a memorable image of the fable of the bear and the bees, featuring a maddened bear being stung by myriad bees, paying the price for having upset their hives.

The prints in Te Papa's set were made just over a century after Gheeraerts by the Dutch printmaker Marcus de Bye (1639-1688), who also made etchings after his compatriot and near contemporary Paulus Potter of cows, goats and lions, all represented in Te Papa's collection. He either had access to Gheeraerts's drawings of bears, as one account claims or, more likely, made a fresh set of plates. In this etching, the thirteenth in the set, a bear is lying in close proximity to a piece of rubble from an ancient classical building, suggesting perhaps that a long-lost civilisation has yielded to the forces of nature. A bear also holds up a ruinous classical memorial stone in the frontispiece (1869-0001-62).

All but one of the set of 16 prints are in Te Papa's collection.


Dr Mark Stocker   Curator, Historical International Art     March 2017

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