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What Is the Hippopotamus Hunt?

By B. Turner
Updated May 23, 2024
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The Hippopotamus Hunt is a famous painting created by Dutch artist Peter Paul Rubens in 1615. It is often recognized as one of the finer examples of Baroque painting, and is characterized by a sense of drama and tension. The painting features a group of men, some of whom are on horseback, engaged in a fierce battle. At the center of the action is a vicious hippopotamus, his teeth bared, perched atop or beside a crocodile. This work of art may also be referred to as the Hippopotamus and Crocodile Hunt, though the crocodile is secondary to the hippopotamus when one views the painting.

Peter Paul Rubens lived from 1577 to 1640. He spent time in Germany, Spain, and the Netherlands, and often painted for royalty and nobility. The Hippopotamus Hunt was commissioned in 1615 by Maximilian I, the Duke of Bavaria. This painting shared many characteristics with Rubens' other works, which were often full of violent images and a sense of drama.

Some art critics see the Hippopotamus Hunt as representative of the age old conflict between man and beast. In just this single picture, viewers see not only the hippo and the crocodile, but also images that suggest the presence of a snake, leopard, horses, and dogs. During this period of history, hunting was strictly forbidden, and only the wealthiest nobles could legally hunt. A painting of a hunt scene could have been seen as a status symbol at the time.

This picture also highlights man's fascination with unknown species and the exotic during this time period. At the start of the 17th century, travel was limited, and few men would ever have the opportunity to see a hippopotamus or a crocodile. This painting may have been intended to shock, both due to its violent nature and its focus on wild and exotic creatures.

Like many of Rubens' works, the Hippopotamus Hunt was characterized by strong diagonal lines that draw the viewer's eyes purposefully from one area of the painting to the next. The painting suggests danger, tension, and strong emotion from both horse and animal. Viewers are left unsure as to whether man or animal will triumph in the battle.

This painting was one of four that Rubens completed in which the subject was a brutal and violent hunt. The others featured a bear, a wolf and a wild boar. In December 2010, the entire set of four paintings, including the Hippopotamus Hunt sold for 10,000 pounds (around $15,000 USD) at Christie's Auction House in London.

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Discussion Comments

By truman12 — On Sep 19, 2011

Honestly, I have never seen or heard of this painting but the idea of hunting a hippopotamus really sets my imagination going. What an outrageous idea for a painting!

I wonder what it was inspired by. Did Reubens himself hunt a hippopotamus at any time in his life or was he just attracted to hunting in general? Were there even any hippopotamus's where he lived? It always amazes me when an artists can create a detailed and seemingly realistic image using only their imagination.

By ZsaZsa56 — On Sep 18, 2011

Ruebens is one of my favorite artists and the hunt series is, in my opinion, some of his finest work. I have an undergraduate degree in art history and I focused primarily on the renaissance masters. Reubens often gets overlooked in favor of Leonardo or Michelangelo, but he deserves to be in the same conversation as these art giants.

If anyone has any doubts they need only to look at the Hippopotamus Hunt. The level of tension and drama and the way the painting draws you through each of the characters, its like a whole film captured in a single image. On top of this it is technically flawless. Reubens was a master draftsman and the longer you stare at this painting the more you will start to appreciate it.

By backdraft — On Sep 17, 2011

I had a poster of the hippopotamus hunt that I had hanging on my wall for well over a decade. I must have spent at least a hundred hours of my life staring at that painting.

I first saw it when I was in college. I was initially dumbstruck. At the time I had never seen a painting, or any piece of art for that matter, which effected me so much. I wanted to stare at it all day. It was like the painting was alive.

It took me a long time to track down a quality poster but I was able to find one through a mail order fine art company. Eventually it got pretty worn down and I grew too old to have posters on mt wall so I had to take it down. I hope one day to get a nice framed version.

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