Famous for his still lifes of exotic fruits and views of plantations, subjects he treated while active in Suriname, Dirk Valkenburg also rendered animal scenes. In this gripping depiction of two roosters heroically engaging in a fierce battle, with a watchful dog on standby, the animals enact a dramatic narrative. The low viewpoint lends the image a powerful monumentality, and by placing the fighting birds in the immediate foreground Valkenburg makes the beholder experience the event as if he were present. The eye contact with the creatures further heightens the psychological impact of the scene.
In this hitherto unpublished and beautifully preserved work Valkenburg gives a demonstration of his full creative potential. The brilliantly coloured birds are thrown in strong relief by the obscure background, which shows an idyllic park furnished with pleasing fountains under an evening sky. The focus is on the superiorly rendered textures of the animals; the soft feathers of the birds, cleverly juxtaposed with their sturdy claws and the dog’s hairy coat. The movements of the birds, their clapping wings and their disarrayed plumage all are magnificently captured and suggest the artist made incessant studies of such rooster fights. Scattered feathers, some floating in the air, some hovering just above the ground, reveal Valkenburg’s talent for telling a story using painterly details. The present work marks Valkenburg as one of the last great practitioners of the Dutch game-piece.
We are quite uniquely well informed about Valkenburg’s life, by virtue of Johan van Gool’s elaborate vita, published in the second volume of his Nieuwe Schouburg der Nederlantsche Kunstschilders of 1751. Having trained with Michiel van Musscher, Valkenburg next studied in Kampen with the town’s burgomaster Van Vollenhoven - a skilled amateur painter - and completed his training in his native Amsterdam with Jan Weenix. The artist then worked at various courts in Germany and for Prince Adam von Liechtenstein in Vienna. Upon his return to Holland in circa 1700 his popularity continued to rise, and King-stadholder William III of Orange commissioned him to decorate Het Loo Palace with hunting canvases. Because of his skilful rendering of plants and animals, he was contracted in 1706 by Jonas Witsen to work in Suriname, to record the tropical flora and fauna of the Dutch colony (‘… om soo de Plantagien alle drie naer 't Leven als andere raare Vogels en gewasen te kunnen uytschilderen') (fig. 1). Valkenburg kept receiving invitations from foreign princes to work at their courts later in life, but always declined.
Abraham Bredius published an interesting list of Valkenburg’s estate in his well-known Künstler-Inventare, which mentions many works by Valkenburg and gives an impression of the range of subjects he treated in addition to animal pieces, such as portraits, fruit still lifes and landscapes.