Rembrandt’s The Hog (1643)

Rembrandt's etching traditionally known as The Hog should really have been called The Sow as the swine has nipples.1 Perhaps whoever titled the image mistook it for reality knowing that hogs are more likely to be slaughtered than sows. Females, weighing substantially less than their mates, often have greater value as fertility machines than as sausage meat. That Rembrandt chose a sow on the point of slaughter, not a hog, must have significance which, as I hope to demonstrate, it does. There is a larger lesson here too. Errors by art historians or those they imagine were made by major artists are often a key to the work's underlying meaning. So pay attention whenever you yourself see an error, hear about an error or read about an error. They can be real or imagined. I know because both types have served me well and continue to be a very important factor in my education.

Convention claims that Rembrandt's genre scenes "depict everyday reality for its own sake".2 If that were so, this one would be illustration not art. Yet, as usual, Rembrandt included many abnormal features to stimulate creative thought in the viewer. Others note the pig's 3-dimensionality, its "portraitlike character" and the composition's radical asymmetry with a large area "totally blank." He also made "expressive use of different degrees of finish."3 So what do they express? And what is their purpose? Bear with me; you will be quite surprised.

Click next thumbnail to continue

Captions for image(s) above:

Rembrandt, The Hog (1643) Etching on paper

Click image to enlarge.

As so often in art, metamorphic self-portraits suggest through abstraction a mental image because all minds are permeated by their owner.4 At top a boy holds a pig's inflated bladder; its circular opening is one of Rembrandt's 'eyes'. The hand near it indicates that eye and hand work together. The other "eye" is a line by the armpit, thus conveying that the arm extends from the 'eye'. With an 'eye' open (circle) and one closed (line), they symbolize two types of perception: insight and 'out-sight'.5 Rembrandt's defining feature, a broad nose, is present along with other details shown in the diagram. Even his lips.

Below is the pig.6 Subtler, this 'portrait' may not be seen by all but please read on. The pig's eye is the artist's; the other a white circle. You will need to look carefully. His broad 'nose', a 'smile' and chubby 'face' can also be seen with the help of the diagram.

If need be, click on the image to enlarge it; then click the next thumbnail to continue

Captions for image(s) above:

Two details of Rembrandt's The Hog with diagrams

Click image to enlarge.

Now the surprise. The print, in reality, depicts craftsmen 'etching' the print itself, a mental image in Rembrandt's mind. Note how the boy resembles an assistant in a contemporaneous depiction of the etching process.7 In the latter the boy pours water over the plate and into a trough just as Rembrandt's is about to throw water over the pig.8. The sow has a trough too, up against the wall like the angled plate in the studio. That's why the pig is '3-dimensional.' She is the etching while the lightly-sketched 'artisans' make the print of her in a different reality.9 Why is so much space blank? They haven't finished.

Click next thumbnail to continue

Captions for image(s) above:

Rembrandt's The Hog (1643) with, inset, an etching by Abraham Bosse from a 1645 treatise depicting the engraving processes, in this case etching. 

Click image to enlarge.

The man at back holds an axe which, as users know, is a common visual metaphor for an artist's tool, whether a brush, pencil or printer's burin.10 Here the axe, like etching acid on the metal plate, will be used to carve lines in the pig. That is also why both butcher and mother wear turbans which were then commonly used in studios to keep paint off hair. Rembrandt himself wears them in self-portraits.11 The group recalls depictions of the Holy Family with the man looking down like a pensive Joseph who was also an artisan. Rembrandt's mind is divine.12

Click next thumbnail to continue

Captions for image(s) above:

Rembrandt, The Hog (1643)

Click image to enlarge.

As usual there is far more to see than I can show here. Note, though, how the signature (detail, bottom) is etched with a light line thereby tying Rembrandt's identity to the lightly-etched artisans in the background. It is also tied to something else. The rope around the sow's legs (top) is formed like the f after his signature (bottom). The f's lower curlicue even resembles the curl of the pig's tail. f is the traditional abbreviation for fecit or faciebat, meaning Rembrandt made it or was making it, respectively.13 Since the rope links the pig to the empty space above, the imperfect tense is more likely, i.e., that "Rembrandt" was still making the print and, thus, that creation never ends. Indeed several paths of the Inner Tradition maintain that we create our own present moment continuously, an endless Now.14


See conclusion below

Captions for image(s) above:

Top: Detail of rope in Rembrandt's The Hog
Bottom: Detail of signature in Rembrandt's The Hog

Click image to enlarge.

Rembrandt chose to depict a sow, not a hog, on the point of slaughter because the sow symbolizes his mind's fertility. Like all minds should be, his was fully human and therefore un-gendered in a form of androgyny. His creativity was powered by feminine attributes. See too how the sow's legs and trotters, symbols for the artist's own hands, are tied in preparation for execution just as Rembrandt executed the print. There is a long little-known tradition in art that equates death with the completion of an artwork. (The term still-life is another example. It means Dead-life. In French it is Nature morte, Dead nature.) It seems likely that the binding of the pig's trotters may also suggest that in following art's traditions so rigorously, conveying similar meaning in every image, Rembrandt suggests that the creative mind is counter-intuitive and that the more you restrict its creative options, the more imaginative it becomes. Picasso said something to that effect, a quote I will add here when I find it again.

One last thought. I have already argued that Rembrandt's so-called "expressive use of different degrees of finish" refers to two different realities: the studio in the background and the etching. It is revealing, though, how Rembrandt chose a light line and evanescent look for the studio and a darker and more defined, fully formed style for the print, the pig. Why? This is all in Rembrandt's mind. The craftsmen are imagined; the etching is real.

For a very similar print, see the entry on Bonnard’s The Pushcart (c.1897).


1. Ger Luitjen in Rembrandt the Printmaker (London: British Museum Press) 2000, p. 203

2. Clifford Ackley in Rembrandt's Journey: Painter, Draftsman, Etcher (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts) 2004, p. 145; Luitjen also remarks that "To judge from the spatial structure [of The Hog], it is doubtful whether the artist recorded the entire scene on the spot." (Luitjen, p. 203) Noting Rembrandt's supposedly incorrect use of perspective, Luitjen does not conclude that the "error" might be intentional (a key to Rembrandt's meaning) but that the image is not a snap-shot. This reveals the underlying paradigm, so common throughout art history, that art is a form of photography and often a view of nature with no other objective than to record nature. The academic discipline of art history, it should be noted, started in the nineteenth century not long after the development of photography in the 1830's. And, just as we today use the terminology and function of computers to describe in metaphorical terms many unrelated aspects of the world, it would have been difficult at that time not to look at painting and think of it in photographic terms.

3. Luitjen, p. 203; Ackley, p. 145

4. I have explained elsewhere why mental images are "distorted". Images like these also appear in the work of Jackson Pollock, an abstract expressionist, suggesting the source of abstraction might not be as recent as scholars believe. See the introduction to the theme Veiled Faces.

5. See introduction to the theme Insight-Outsight.

6. Remember the pig has been described as "portraitlike" by one scholar unaware of the 'self-portrait' who also noted "the careful rendering of her eye." Ackley, p. 145

7. The illustration by the French artist, Abraham Bosse, comes from a manual on the printing processes published in 1645, two years after the date on Rembrandt's print. I can only think of two reasons why they look so similar. The first is that the process was similar in all studios and that young children, apprentices perhaps, were often used for these tasks. The second is more intriguing. Perhaps Rembrandt, by then a well-known engraver, was shown drawings or the prints themselves prior to publication. He may even have dated The Hog a year or two earlier to disguise his dependence on the print. Bosse's prints were later widely distributed among artists and became famous in their own right. The treatise was not published in Dutch until 1662.

8. In contemporary depictions of a pig's slaughter by other more pedestrian painters an inflated bladder held by a boy is said to be filled with air and that children used them at the time to make rude noises. (Luitjen, p. 205.) Rembrandt, of course, implies that the bladder still holds its original contents because he is comparing the acidity of urine to the acid of the etching process. In French, an etching is known as eau-forte, literally strong-water.

9. It is not coincidental the principal subject of Rembrandt's print and its title is also the subject of the 'print' within the print. There are many examples in art though a prominent one is Manet's Le Déjeuner sur l'Herbe (1863) which he originally titled Le Bain or The Bath. As I have revealed here, the 'painting' within Manet's painting is the girl in the background taking a bath which thus explains why manet chose the title. See the entry itself.

10. See introduction to the theme Swords/Weapons as Brushes

11. For the significance of turbans in art, see Filippino's Dead Christ and the Artist's Turban and Mystery in Michelangelo’s Battle of Cascina (1504).

12. See examples under the theme, Artist as Christ as well as Rembrandt's Crucifixion (1631)

13. Michelangelo spelled out faciebat (making it) instead of the more normal fecit (made it) on the Vatican Pietà for the same reason Rembrandt seems to imply its use here.

14. As just one example St Augustine describes God's unchanging, ever-present essence as though God always lives in the same day. That at least is its meaning for those who think of an exterior divinity. For those focused on inner divinity his words mean something else: that when we recognize God within us we will discover that there is only one moment, the present one, just as there is for "God". At the end of the passage, he hints at his hidden meaning with the words: "What is it to me if someone does not understand this? Let him still rejoice and continue to ask, “What is this?”." The full text follows:

"Whence could such a creature come but from thee, O Lord? Is any man skillful enough to have fashioned himself? Or is there any other source from which being and life could flow into us, save this, that thou, O Lord, hast made us--thou with whom being and life are one, since thou thyself art supreme being and supreme life both together. For thou art infinite and in thee there is no change, nor an end to this present day--although there is a sense in which it ends in thee since all things are in thee and there would be no such thing as days passing away unless thou didst sustain them. And since “thy years shall have no end,” thy years are an ever-present day. And how many of ours and our fathers’ days have passed through this thy day and have received from it what measure and fashion of being they had? And all the days to come shall so receive and so pass away. “But thou art the same”! And all the things of tomorrow and the days yet to come, and all of yesterday and the days that are past, thou wilt gather into this thy day. What is it to me if someone does not understand this? Let him still rejoice and continue to ask, “What is this?” Let him also rejoice and prefer to seek thee, even if he fails to find an answer, rather than to seek an answer and not find thee!"    

St. Augustine, Confessions, Ch. VI. 10.

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 29 Aug 2013. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.