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James W Singer 13 March 2023
min Read16 January 2023
Who Sues for a Cow is a masterpiece of social commentary by now-forgotten artist, Cornelis Saftleven. It is a strange painting from the Dutch Golden Age with its animal figures performing human tasks. Saftleven presents an almost surrealist satire on the silliness of frivolous lawsuits and the evils of amoral attorneys.
Cornelis Saftleven (1607-1681) was an artist of the Dutch Golden Age who worked in the cultural cities of Antwerp, Rotterdam and Utrecht. He held a solid reputation during his lifetime among the public and his peers; even Peter Paul Rubens, the famous Flemish artist, owned eight of Saftleven’s works at the time of his death in 1640. Today, however, Saftleven is largely forgotten because he is overshadowed by his more famous contemporaries such as Rembrandt, Johannes Vermeer, Jacob van Ruisdael, and Frans Hals. Therefore, his reputation deserves reassessment with the masterpiece Who Sues for a Cow as an example of his brilliance.
Cornelis Saftleven painted Who Sues for a Cow in 1629 when he was only 22 years old. The image is made from oil paint on a wooden panel, and measures 82 cm wide by 59.5 cm high (32.3 in by 23.4 in). The panel depicts an interior scene with clients seeking legal guidance from lawyers. However, most of the clients and lawyers are not people, but animals, which injects a comical and humorous element to the drama.
Four figures dominate the panel’s right foreground: an owl, a pig, a bird, and a toad. The owl is a lawyer. He wears a typical lawyer’s outfit of the period with its black cap, fur-trimmed coat, and small neck ruffle. His learned eyes stare through his spectacles as he writes the testimony of the clients before him.
Before the owl-lawyer is a pig who is a farmer. He wears a vermillion red coat, a starched white collar, a brown satchel, and leather shoes. He holds his humble cap in his hands as a sign of respect before the owl-lawyer. His respectable appearance indicates he is a gentleman farmer; he does not till the fields himself, but he oversees the farm’s operations. The pig-farmer’s mouth is slightly open indicating he is speaking to the owl-lawyer about his account of the lawsuit.
To the left of the pig-farmer is a bird, who is the farmer’s wife. She wears a simple white cap, a beautifully starched large neck ruffle, and an elegant skirt. The abundance of her spotless white attire implies her spotless character, piety, and respectability; she is a good character witness for her pig-husband. While the bird-wife holds a basket in her right arm, her left arm is outstretched with a large gold coin towards the owl-lawyer, in the process of paying the owl-lawyer for his legal advice and services.
To the right of the respectable farm couple is a toad, who is their child. It sits naked on the floor, indicating it must be a small toddler as a large child would be clothed like its parents. The toad has its head arched towards the owl-lawyer as it listens to what is occurring. The toad probably does not understand the conversation’s subject, but it knows that something exciting is happening. It has never been to this building with its parents.
The painting’s title indicates that the farmer couple is suing for a cow. Perhaps the disputed cow is the cow in the foreground’s bottom-left corner? If it is, it is a small cow when compared to the two sheep beside it. Is a small cow really worth the cost of legal action?
The banner hanging above the owl-lawyer answers that question: No, it is not worth it. The banner states in Dutch:
Die wil regten om een koe, die blijft vrij ty en brengt er nog een toe.
Which translated means:
He wants rights to a cow, he remains free and brings another one.
Essentially, taking legal action often costs you more money than the disputed sum you are fighting to regain. This is an evil of the court system.
Cornelis Saftleven exposes the social wrongdoing of greedy lawyers through Who Sues for a Cow The painting is a biting commentary and allegory- honest, respectable, but naïve farmers are being exploited by avaricious urban attorneys. Using animals to showcase humanity’s follies and sins was a common device by artists in the 17th century. It allowed social ills to be openly discussed with a touch of lightness to soften its impact. Who Sues for a Cow was a great success, and it was reproduced in many prints for popular dispersion.
Behind the farmer couple in the foreground is a couple in the mid-ground. This couple is a bird and a dog. Perhaps they are the next couple seeking legal counsel on a case? Perhaps they are the defendants in the case being filed over the disputed cow? Regardless of their position in the scene, what is certain is the fate of the dog’s bag of coins in its hand; the bag will soon be lighter after the owl-lawyer is paid for more legal services. Another gold coin lost to the wheels of superfluous lawsuits and dishonest lawyers.
What is interesting to note is that not everyone in Who Sues for a Cow is an animal. In the background is a human lawyer behind his desk with two human clients before him. In the background’s upper left corner is a human couple on a staircase. They smirk with obvious amusement as they view the folly below.
Then in the background’s left side is a human pulling a horned cow through an open door. Since the painting is not entirely inhabited by animals, it could be theorized that only the animal figures are under criticism. They are the ones committing silly follies or grasping sins, while the humans’ actions are virtuous. Hence, the human figures represent morality, and the animal figures represent wastefulness.
Who Sues for a Cow is a masterpiece of Dutch Golden Age social commentary, proving that even a “golden age” had its flaws and critics. Who Sues for a Cow was acquired in 1889 by the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam, Netherlands. If enough visitors view this piece, then hopefully Cornelis Saftleven will begin to receive the recognition he deserves. Saftleven proves that many talented artists have fallen to the status of footnotes in modern society.
Cornelis Saftleven is just one of the many overshadowed artists that needs to be reevaluated today. He had talent. He had skill. He lived, and his legacy should live on too.
“Cornelis Saftleven” Collection. Fondation Custodia, Paris, France. Retrieved 1 January 2023.
“Cornelis Saftleven.” RKD Netherlands Institute for Art History, Den Haag, Netherlands. Retrieved 1 January 2023.
“Who Sues for a Cow?” Collection. Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, Netherlands. Retrieved 31 December 2022.
“Who Sues for a Cow?” Google Arts & Culture. Retrieved 31 December 2022.
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