Hoogsteder Journal No. 09

Drinking peasants, drunken gentlemen

Drinking companies in art

Drinking companies form a recurrent theme in painting from the sixteenth century on. These paintings depict peasants and town and country people disporting themselves at the tavern or in their own homes. The modern Dutch slogan ‘Enjoy, but drink in moderation’ could serve as a motto for representations of this type.

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Drinking habits in the seventeenth century

Dirty water

For centuries water was so polluted that it formed a health hazard. In large cities, canals were open sewers and industrial and craft producers used them to dump their waste. Only wells, clean rivers and rain provided reliable drinking water. In the towns the population depended on light alcoholic beverages that were clean, durable and affordable.

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A nation of drunkards

Batavian boozers

History has saddled the Low Countries with a more or less hereditary reputation for drunkenness. Greek and Roman writers like Hippocrates, Galen and Vitruvius developed a theory on the subject based on climate. They explained the different lifestyles of the various peoples as a product of their natural surroundings, the type of soil, water, wind and air. The Batavians, according to classical authors, had a number of negative characteristics: greed and alcohol abuse being chief among them. This was blamed on the circumstances in which they lived, since they ate and drank to combat the cold.

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Artist and alcohol

Did artists drink more than people in other professions?

Appearances deceive

‘The landlord of the Three Masts is sooner drunk than his guests’ is a saying that does not, at first, seem appropriate to one of Holland’s most famous painters. But appearances are deceptive. This proverb was applied to the celebrated painter Jan Steen. Steen, who lived the greater part of his life in Leiden, opened an inn in 1672 on Langebrug, where he seems to have been one of his own best customers. The quotation is taken from De Groote Schouburgh der Nederlandtsche Konstschilders en Schilderessen (1718/21) in which the painter and chronicler Arnold Houbraken recorded the lives of the major Netherlandish painters of the Golden Age. Tales about Steen’s drinking and drunkenness abound. However he was not the only one, the Schouburgh includes stories about other painters and their intemperate behaviour.

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Bacchus god of wine

Bacchantes and bacchanals

In classical antiquity ceremonies celebrating the wine god Dionysus or Bacchus were the scene of orgiastic rites. In a state of ecstasy the followers of the cult of Bacchus, known as Bacchantes, carried out the most heinous acts that included tearing wild animals limb from limb.

Drink and grapes

Symbolism in still lifes and genre scenes

Grapes, glasses and other drinking paraphernalia were initially depicted in still lifes and genre scenes for their pictorial qualities. Frequently, however, it is was precisely these objects that gave the picture a deeper significance.

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