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The Nobile Sport Of Falconry At The Cloisters
( Article orginally published May 1944 )
A trip to the Cloisters in their exquisite secluded setting is always gratifying beyond words. The new exhibit there on the Noble Sport of Falconry which opened May 17th, is indeed an added incentive to lovers of things medieval for visiting this little haven. Falconry, or hawking, though still in practice in a slight degree, is one of the charming phases of life that have fled with the coming of the Machine Age. In the Middle Ages it flourished considerably and was glorified by the aristocrats. We have mention of this sport, in fact, as far back as 2,000 B.C. in China, and in the Near East, about 500 B.C. In Europe our oldest records are of about the time of Aristotele. The earliest authority cited in this exhibit is the work written by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II of Sicily, De arte vernandi cum avibus (On the art of hunting with birds), XIII century. Frederick seems to have employed Mohammedan trainers for his falcons. His work is accompanied by many interesting illuminations on various phases of the sport.
Frederick tells us that the human countenance and presence is rather distasteful to the falcon. How difficult, then, the training of these birds. The period of patient conditioning necessitated can be most trying to a man whose love for these birds does not go all the way with them. If the falcon is taken from its nest while young, the training will be an easy matter, but she may not be as good a hunter as the tougher adult, who is, naturally, a tougher trainee. We shall refer to the hawk or falcon as "she", for the female of the species is larger and, true to her sex, the better onlooker. Upon close inspection of any of his eight group portraits, found in the Hals Museum in Haarlem, this "shorthand" method is quite noticeable in the treatment of highlights, features, hands (gloved or not), and lace cuffs and ruffs.
This all leads us to believe him to have been a quick worker, a master at the brush stroke. Upon once achieving the desired effect, he seldom went back to smooth off the rough edges. These eight group portraits are among Hals' best works from the point of view of careful, finished draughtsmanship. Five of these represent members of the Sharpshooters Guild, a sort of standing army of the day, one, the governors of a hospital in Haarlem, and the last two, the governors and governesses of the Almshouse. 'Where as the first of this series vibrated with the dash and swagger and almost clashing colors of an accomplished young man of 30, the last group, aches with the sadness, the hardness, the morbid tones of a broken old man of 80. For in the year Hals painted this last picture, he was already the recipient of Community alms.