The original painting measures 248 by 321 centimetres (98 by 126 inches) and it housed at Munich's Alte Pinakothek, which is also home of the artist’s ‘The Lion Hunt’.
Rubens’ ‘The Hippopotamus and Crocodile Hunt’ shows a furious battle between a hunting party and their prey on the banks of the Nile. Three of the men are portrayed as noblemen tasked with killing the nuisances. The hippopotamus and crocodile are bother under attack by three hunters, who are mounted on Arabian horses while brandishing lances and swords. Their clothing and the palm trees in the background set the scene in Egypt. The painting also shows two valets, one of whom has been killed. Unlike the hunters, the valets are depicted partially nude. Three hunting dogs are also launching an attack on the beasts.
The Flemish draughtsman and painter was known for his hunting scenes as well as paintings with religious and mythical themes and subjects. As with much of Rubens' work, his hunt paintings demonstrated a frenzied energy and showcased intense scenes. ‘The Hippopotamus and Crocodile Hunt’ also illustrates Rubens’s regular use of motion and drama. Its colourful and bright palette are also often found in his other paintings. Rubens' hunting scenes were generally painted on large canvas. ‘Tiger Hunt’, a large oil on canvas created between 1615 and 1616, was another of the four hunting paintings commissioned by Maximillian I. The other paintings featured wolf and boar hunts.
Rubens paints the subjects in 'The Hippopotamus and Crocodile Hunt' with surprising detail and the animals in are relatively accurate in their appearances. He is believed to have seen an exhibit of a dead hippopotamus before painting the piece. At the same time, the actually hunt is not realistic and instead represents humanity's struggle with nature. The painting also illustrates contrasts between smooth and scaly textures. It also contrasts beauty through the use of vivid colour and composition with the barbaric and brutal violence being shown. Light and dark elements also provide another level of contrast.
'The Hippopotamus and Crocodile Hunt' reflects currents in and out of the world of art during the time Rubens finished the painting. The period saw an increase in natural history. Empiricism and experimental science also gained popularity during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Other hunting related paintings created by Rubens include ‘Diana Returning from Hunt’ from 1615 and ‘The Wolf and Fox Hunt’ from around 1616. ‘The Lion Hunt’ from 1621 depicts two lions being attacked by hunters, some on foot and others on horseback. The painting marked the end of Rubens’s focus on the theme.
Rubens was born in 1577 in the city of Siegen when it was part of the Holy Roman Empire. Raised during a time of religious turmoil and the Protestant Reformation, his early life and Catholic upbringing played an important role in the themes he later displayed in his art. His early studies were focused on Renaissance humanist education, including Latin and classical literature. At the age of 14, Rubens began his artistic apprenticeship in Antwerp. In 1600, he travelled to Italy and became increasingly influenced by the works of Titian and Caravaggio. He was also inspired by Veronese and Tintoretto, especially their composition style and use of colour. Rubens was also fascinated by Michelangelo, Raphael, and Leonardo da Vinci.
His time in Italy was largely spent in Mantua at the court of Duke Vincenzo I of Gonzaga. Rubens travelled to Venice, Rome and Florence creating copies of paintings as part of his studies. He also created his first altarpiece, ‘St. Helena with the True Cross’ for Santa Croce in Gerusalemme. The artist also travelled to Spain on behalf of the court. In Genoa, Rubens painted several portraits include ‘Marchesa Brigida Spinola-Doria’. He also created paintings featuring saints including Saint Gregory the Great as well as the Virgin Mary and Jesus.
In 1608, Rubens planned his return to Antwerp after hearing about his mother’s illness. She died before he made his way to his homeland in 1609. His return coincided with a period of prosperity in the city. Rubens was soon appointed as a painter in the court of Albert VII, Archduke of Austria, and his wife Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia of Spain. The monarchs ruled the Low Countries and remained close with the painter, especially Isabella. Rubens was often asked to act as an ambassador and diplomat, which led him to travel across Europe. His patrons include Marie de Medici, the Queen Mother of France, as well as Philip IV of Spain and Charles I of England.
With Rubens’s international reputation on the rise during the 1620s, the artist’s work was sought after by collectors and nobility. He also created stunning monumental paintings during the height of his popularity, such as the ‘Assumption of the Virgin Mary’ for the Cathedral of Antwerp. Rubens continued working for foreign patrons and local commissions until his death in 1640. The Baroque style painter left behind a collection of paintings, often featuring biblical and mythical women. His subjects were often sexualised and full-figured, and were often portrayed in a manner to appeal to his male patrons. His male subjects were also generally based on biblical or mythical stories in the same style as his female figures, although they were generally depicted partially nude.