ANIMAL ART OF THE DAY The Threatened Swan

The Threatened Swan
The Threatened Swan, c. 1650
Jan Asselijn (Dutch, 1610-1652)
oil on canvas

A swan fiercely defends its nest against a dog. In later centuries this scuffle was interpreted as a political allegory: the white swan was thought to symbolize the Dutch statesman Johan de Witt (assassinated in 1672) protecting the country from its enemies. This was the meaning attached to the painting when it became the very first acquisition to enter the Nationale Kunstgalerij (the forerunner of the Rijksmuseum) in 1880.


The museum’s audio tour guide notes that this was the only animal painting Asselijn ever made; he was primarily a landscape artist. The swan in this painting can be positively identified by its colors and markings as a Mute Swan (Cygnus olor). (Any ideas on the breed of the dog?)

Mute Swan
Mute Swan (Cygnus olor) carrying cygnets on back
CC BY-SA 2.0

The guide also speculates that its original meaning was a simple good vs. evil allegory until “someone else came along and completely changed the scene’s meaning.” As seen in the details below, three inscriptions were later added which transformed the painting into a political allegory of Johan de Witt, the grand pensionary of Holland, protecting the province from its enemies. These inscriptions were likely added during the 1750s “Witten-Oorlog” pamphlet war which referenced the Witt brothers’ execution.

Holland egg
“Holland” on egg
“DE RAAD-PENSIONAIRIS” (the grand pensionary”) between the swan’s legs
“DE VLAND VAN DE STAAT” (the enemy of the state”) over the dog
“JA” artist’s monogram in lower right of canvas (likely the only original inscription)
sharing is caring:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

five + nineteen =