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Artwork of the week: The Hunt in the Forest by Paolo Uccello

The fantastical landscape illustrated in The Hunt in the Forest has helped me get through the numerous lockdowns we have faced throughout this pandemic. The Hunt is a painting by Italian artist Paolo di Dono, better known as Uccello, circa 1465–1470. After coming across it at a History of Art course in my first year, it has become one of my favourite paintings and I have revisited it over the periods of lockdown frequently. The Hunt, as the name suggests, depicts a host of people hunting, some on horses, with dogs and deer in a deep, grand forest. 

You might think it odd that I have been drawn to this painting; the aristocratic pastime of hunting can scarcely be considered relatable to the average university student, not to mention cruel and out of date anyway. However, after being locked up in a small flat in Dhaka for an entirety of six months during the summer, I have built up a voracious thirst for life and energy, as abstract (and perhaps pretentious) as it may sound. As far as I could see, it was a sea of ugly grey buildings, a mess of concrete sprawling the earth in every direction. It was depressing. 

The Hunt became symbolic of what I wanted from life. I longed to feel the rush of riding one of the racing horses, even though I haven’t ridden a horse in my life. The forest seems to stretch on forever, holding mysteries and adventures, somewhere you could run free and fast. The central vanishing point of the painting, denoted by the huntsmen’s spears and the receding forms of the figures draws our gaze deep into the endless forest. Uccello’s depiction of the men and the trees present a sense of visual unreality due to their peculiar dimensions next to each other, heightening the sense of fantasy. Juxtaposing this feeling of peculiarity and fantasy is the linear perspective of the painting, which makes you feel as though you are part of the scene itself. The Hunt taking place at night is another unusual aspect of the painting– Uccello is purposefully being playful here, opposing reality as hunts would usually be during the day. This painting was most likely a commission intended for an extravagant domestic setting, a spalliera, used as a backboard of a decorated chest, or as a headboard for a bed. The flecks of gold on the tops of the trees make the painting even more luxurious, which would’ve glowed when viewed in the candlelight of an indoor setting. These symbolic ideas of adventure, space, and freedom were so alluring to me. Even the idea of hunting, something I’m very opposed to, felt to me a new experience I might be able to experience one day at the time, out of the confines of the four walls I was in. The fantastical dreamlike painting overall completely paralleled the limbo that I felt I was in throughout those six months.

Like most others, I have felt restless and impatient throughout the pandemic. Perhaps at times, looking at The Hunt whilst feeling trapped intensified that feeling of restlessness, and made me want to run with an agitated passion. But it also gave me hope for future, to be in nature, to experience new adventures, perhaps even be able to see the painting itself in real life. It is located at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, perhaps as the best-known painting there. Once the restrictions of the pandemic ease, viewing that painting is definitely on my list.

Image: Paolo Uccello The Hunt in the Forest 1465-70
Image courtesy of Wikicommons