Adriaen Coenen’s “Fish Book”


In 1577, at the age of 63, Adriaen Coenen, from the Dutch fishing port of Scheveningen, started his Visboek (Fish book). Over a period of three years he collected all kinds of information about the sea, coasts and coastal waters, fishing grounds, and marine animals, in all producing 410 expert pages. Throughout his life Coenen had earned his living from the sea, as a fisherman, salvage master, and from 1574 as official fish auctioneer at Scheveningen. Coenen made nearly every page into a miniature work of art by framing his texts and illustrations with borders, edges and cartouches painted in watercolor. Coenen must have realized the special value of his book, as appears from the minutes of the court sessions in Leiden from 1583. They contain a note indicating that Coenen asked permission for his book and his collection of dried fish “to be shown at the coming free annual fair and the festival for the relief of the city [3 October], receiving from every person a duit (a small coin) and from those wanting to see the book an oortgen (worth two duiten).” In other words, looking at his book cost twice as much as viewing his dried fish. On the reverse of folio 11, Coenen wrote the following lines about his book: “Whoever reads or studies it / May spread the word to / Another that he may see and hear.” One of the marvels of the sea that viewers could admire in the work was entitled “The true Portrait and size of this whale that has been captured on the ij of July AD m.d.lxxvij,” painted in watercolor on two pages. Coenen had drawn this whale after an engraving that had appeared in the same year (1577). The drawing and the caption record a newsworthy event: a whale that was cast ashore in the shallow waters of the Scheldt River near Doel, north of Antwerp, and which attracted much attention. A few years later Coenen made a second book, based on this manuscript, which is now in Antwerp; a third, also with drawings of whales, is part of a collection in Cologne.

Last updated: August 19, 2015