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    At the scene of slaughter, a visual triumph


    It’s always good, I find, after spending a bit of time with the lovely but intermittently lulling arrangement of pastoral Monets, pleasant Pissarros, and fluffy Renoirs at the Museum of Fine Arts, to go and spend time in front of this picture, in the Dutch and Flemish gallery. It’s called “Butcher Shop,’’ and it was painted by David Teniers the Younger in 1642.

    Magnificent, isn’t it? Have you already noticed the dog licking the blood that has dripped from the flayed carcass into the shallow bowl below?

    And how about the ox’s head over there on the left, tiny rivulets of blood snaking down its snowy surface as it contemplates, with palpable dismay, its present predicament and imminent fate? Sausages. Steaks. Stock. And so forth. The cycle of life. Sobering stuff.


    That fate is in the hands, it would seem, of the woman over to the right, who bends awkwardly over a chopping block, cleaver in hand. She has a real job ahead of her, starting with the lungs and liver - but just the right temperament for it.

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    Meanwhile, the creature’s luxuriant hide with its two proud horns languishes on the floor below its bloodied head. All this once fitted together, you can see the beast thinking as it takes it all in: If only I could manage to gather up all my pieces, I could conceivably get back to my old life. . . . It was just this morning, but already it seems so long ago!

    The aproned woman with her cleaver seems vaguely intrigued by these animadversions (she turns around, I like to think, having heard some bovine muttering). But the friendly folk at the back of the room are utterly oblivious. One of them - the butcher, I presume - stands with a bottle in one hand and a glass in the other. He’s having a tipple as he chats to an industrious-looking woman, who holds a ceramic jug, and seems eager to be done with him. But it’s warm there by the fire. Another man is halfway out the door. All excellent people.

    Teniers (1610-90) did a few of these slaughter scenes. You can see them in Vienna’s Kunsthistorische Museum, Stockholm’s National Gallery, and the Uffizi in Florence; but the MFA picture is the first of its kind - and what an excellent job he did.

    Everything is lovingly described, from the blood pooling and drying beneath the ox’s whiskery nose to the nicks and chalk marks on the timber column behind. The carcass itself is a triumph of visual description - the brushwork loose and fleshy but not so loose as to come untethered.


    Scholars like to connect these kinds of pictures with deeper meanings. Is it a memento mori? A symbol of the Crucifixion? Possibly. But it doesn’t look like a metaphor to me. It looks like a butcher shop.

    Sebastian Smee can be reached at