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Today we tell about the glorious and heroic heritage of the duke of Rouen!  No, wait…I read that wrong…this actually says the DUCK of Rouen. Well…an international success story is an international success story no matter the protagonist.

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Rouen ducks featured in Mrs.Beeton’s Book of Household Management in 1861.

French farmers are famous for their ancient breeds of livestock which have roots stretching back into the Middle Ages (and maybe beyond…all the way back to ancient Rome).   French breeds of cattle and horses—like the Charolaise, the Limousine, and the Percheron are universally known.  Similarly, there is an ancient tradition of poultry farming in France (to such an extent that the English word poultry originally comes from France).

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Rouen Hen

The Rouen duck is probably the most well-known French breed of duck. It is named after Rouen, the northern French town, however it seems like the birds are not necessarily from there, but have a pan-French heritage.  In France, the breed is known as Rouen Foncé (the dark Rouen) for its dark heavy colors.

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Sadly the Rouen duck does not come off well on the internet.  They just look like mallard ducks.  However, in the real world, the difference is extremely evident.  They are twice the size with a pronounced “boat-like” body.  These ducks weigh 4–5.5 kilograms (9–12 pounds).  They are not renowned for their egg-laying but rather for their mass–which suggests that they were bred expressly to contribute very directly to the renowned arts of French cuisine.

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Here are three Chinese paintings of mallard ducks from 3 different eras.  Coincidentally, the mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) is one of the quintessential success stories of animals alive today.  It lives throughout Asia, Europe, North America, and North Africa (in addition to places where it has been introduced) and it was the ancestor to most domestic ducks.  However we will leave an in-depth wild duck essay for later this year (seriously, they really are magnificent & fascinating animals) in order to appreciate these three watercolor on silk paintings.

Duckling (Artist Unknown, Song Dynasty, ink and watercolor on silk)

Duckling (Artist Unknown, Song Dynasty, ink and watercolor on silk)

The first (and greatest) comes from the Song dynasty which ruled China from 960 AD to 1279 AD.  As mentioned earlier, the Song is regarded as a glorious apogee of Chinese art and poetry and the simple court painting of a duckling makes the reasons self-evident.  The animal is foreshortened and painted with effortless naturalism.

Waterfowl (Chen Lin, Yuan dynasty, ink and watercolor on silk)

Waterfowl (Chen Lin, Yuan dynasty, ink and watercolor on silk)

The Second painting comes from the Yuan dynasty—the era of Mongol occupation.  Although the duck is presented from the side as though diagramed, it still has a charming naturalism.  Additionally the bird has an amusingly insouciant look.  His magnificently rendered plumage and feet also serve to give him character while the autumn vines in the background further serve to give the painting piquancy.

Just Like Mum (Danny Han-Lin Chen, Contemporary)

Just Like Mum (Danny Han-Lin Chen, Contemporary)

Finally we have a lovingly rendered contemporary painting.  Even though it is separated from the others by nearly a millennium, the brushwork is similar. The feathers have been painted with swift sure strokes.   The background though vibrantly colored has been sketched in to suggest a landscape (rather then rendered in detail.  Although and there is a touch more photorealism in the duck’s plumage there is also a touch less charisma and personality in the ducks’ faces.

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October 2020
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