Jan Asselijn - The Threatened Swan

by Dr. Stefanie Meier-Kaftan


Anyone who has ever encountered a swan, perhaps with a dog, knows what defensive behaviour they can adopt when it comes to their nest or young. The behaviour of mute swans is characterised by the fact that they are not very shy and often show aggressive behaviour, especially in their breeding area. Demonstratively, it shows a threatening gesture towards intruders such as humans, dogs and other swans by its puffed-up plumage, the widely spread wings and the retracted neck. A real riot in defence of the nest and offspring.

The Dutch painter Jan Asselijin also depicted this extremely vividly in his painting "The Threatened Swan". Only a few details are known about the artist himself, who was born around 1610 in Holland or 1615 in Dieppe (France) and died in Amsterdam in 1652. Even about the exact place of birth there is no agreement so far. He probably travelled via France to Italy in the late 1630s to early 1640s. There the artist was a member of the Dutch painters' association in Rome and was nicknamed "Crabettje" (Crab) because of a deformation of his fingers.


The light-flooded and atmospheric depictions of his landscape paintings are also reflected here. Behind the posed swan, storm clouds are gathering, the white plumage of the animal is emphasised even more by the darkening sky. The depiction does not appear exaggerated. The wings spread out, the legs wide apart, the neck drawn back and the beak in a threatening gesture, the swan makes itself as large as possible to defend its nest with the eggs. Only on closer inspection does the viewer realise that a dog is approaching from the left edge of the picture. In this case, the swan stands as a symbol of purity and the dog represents evil; the intruder.


The life-size depiction of the threatened swan is an animal depiction by Asselijn, who was mainly known for landscape paintings and folk life paintings. His works are distinguished above all by the fact that his pictures are flooded with light and often contain references to contemporary events. This can also be found hidden in this work. This representation is a reference to the Dutch statesman Jan (Johan) de Witt. In the shape of the swan, he symbolises the defender of Holland against enemies. Holland is represented here in the shape of the eggs (according to the inscription on the swan's egg) and the dog on the left as the enemy.


Jan Asselijn - The Threatened Swan

Oil on canvas, 1650, 144 × 171 cm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam