Drinking peasants, drunken gentlemen

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.

In the sixteenth century the Flemish master Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Brussels 1528-1569 Brussels) launched an entirely new genre in Western art by taking people merrymaking as the main subject of his pictures. Bruegel’s portrayals of kermises and peasant weddings are among the best-known examples of sixteenth-century painting. The common man carousing was glorified by three generations of Bruegels right into the seventeenth century. And Pieter Bruegel’s paintings were so popular in his day that prints were made of them, which were also widely circulated in the Northern Netherlands. This, and the increasing northward migration of artists from Flanders, ensured that pictures of drinking companies became much-prized in Holland. Soon specialisations in the genre developed, with some artists devoting themselves to depicting tavern merrymaking, while others chose to describe elegant companies in interiors or parkland surroundings.
Drinking among both the poor and the rich is a theme that runs right through the exhibition, with representations of drinking peasants alongside drunken gentlemen. We see them in peasant taverns and urban inns, but also at stately banquets. Van Buesem painted drunken peasants; Van Mieris a sated patrician. A guardroom with boozing soldiers is the simple version of a opulent militia piece. A solitary woman drinking at a inn by Arie de Vois represents the urban middle classes, like the merrymakers in Egbert van Heemskerk’s tavern scene.

Haarlem developed into the artistic centre of merry company pieces. The theme of the tavern scene was introduced here by the Fleming Adriaen Brouwer, who came to study under Frans Hals around 1625. In Haarlem Brouwer got to know the brothers Adriaen and Isack van Ostade.
These three artists were responsible for the enormous popularity of tavern scenes showing drinking, smoking and fighting peasants. Using a predominantly brown palette with a few bright colour accents and a sharp contrast of light and shade, they portrayed scenes of peasant revelries that were at once hugely attractive to city folk and a condemnable example. Soon a number of other artists in Amsterdam and Rotterdam – Pieter Quast, Jan Jansz. Buesem, Hendrick Sorgh, Pieter de Bloot and Pieter Duyfhuysen – tried their hand at this branch of painting. Cornelis Dusart, a pupil of Adriaen van Ostade, was one of the last exponents of the genre, producing work in this manner right into the eighteenth century. In Flanders the foremost painter of peasant life alongside Brouwer, was David Teniers, who continued this pictorial tradition until his death at the end of the seventeenth century. His representations of low-life scenes were highly favoured, even among the highest society, and formed part of countless collections.
A highly appropriate artist to feature in this exhibition is Arie de Vois. He was familiar with tavern life from experience: his father, organist of St Peter’s church in Leiden, was also a wine merchant and owned a bar on Pieterskerkchoorsteeg. In his early years De Vois painted in the style of Jan Steen, who had also been apprenticed to Nicolaus Knüpfer in Utrecht. In fact they were related: Steen’s brother was married to Arie’s sister, Catherina. Later, when the polished style of Leiden’s fijnschilders came into fashion, Arie de Vois adopted this new style of painting. His themes also changed: moving from peasants having fun to genre pieces and pastoral scenes.

A mirror of reality?
Young and old, man and woman, merchant and peasant, prince and pauper – everyone drank in the seventeenth century. This pastime usually took place at a drinking establishment, but whether it was a smart city tavern, dingy village inn or a sutler’s tent, everyone drank. And it is largely through paintings that we know what went on in these places of amusement.

But are tavern scenes an accurate reflection of daily life? Genre pictures are as carefully composed as other seventeenth-century works of art. The artist not only opted for a specific use of colour, but his particular painterly technique would give the subject a personal interpretation. Moreover to enhance the composition certain aspects would either be added or left out. Painters also frequently included a moralistic or light-hearted message. A combination of artefacts, a specific gesture or the presence of a significant print on the wall would imbue the picture with a charge that was immediately recognisable to the seventeenth-century viewer. The message conveyed by drink or alcohol consumption forms the central focus of the exhibition, which flags-up that drink is the vehicle of a variety of messages, the most obvious being: ‘Too much of ought is good for nought’. In present-day terms: ‘Enjoy, but drink in moderation’. The following three paintings, each in their own way, illustrate this.

Foolish owl
The figures in Jan Jansz. Buesem’s Peasant Tavern are in fact being ridiculed by the painter. Indeed they are caricatures of drunk peasants. Two of them have fallen asleep, a third raises a tankard to his lips, while a monk appears completely at ease in this worldly den of iniquity. In the foreground we see a farmer is sitting on a stool made of a sawn-off beer barrel. Like the woman beside him, he is clearly drunk. Their foolish behaviour is pointed-up by the print of the owl on the wall. Prints of this nature allude to a familiar proverb of the time that is also found in Jacob Cats’s emblem books: ‘What use the candle or spectacle if the owl will not see’. The owl, who can see nothing by day, but is active by night, symbolises foolishness. Cats’s emblem book contains an amusing illustration of the bird wearing real owlish spectacles on his beak. Here it acts as a warning to the seventeenth-century viewer of the effects of foolish drunkenness.

Turtle dove
Arie de Vois’s Woman Drinking depicts a solitary woman merrily smoking and raising a glass of wine – definitely not her first from the jug on the table in front of her. One’s suspicions are deepened by the square bottle beside the pitcher. Her flushed countenance, blurred gaze and nonchalant bearing all give her a tipsy appearance. Above her hangs a cage with a turtle dove – a bird widely associated with love because it remains faithful to the same partner for life. Turtle doves in cages frequently appear in seventeenth-century prints. Is the woman in the picture lonely and unhappy, like the bird, and is this why she is taking refuge in drink and tobacco? Or is she planning to go flirting herself, and should we interpret the pipe on the table as an erotic symbol? Three centuries later the specific symbolism must remain speculative; even the best iconologist cannot always decipher a painting’s exact significance. And this holds true of this picture. Whatever, the seventeenth-century viewer, like us, will have looked at this tipsy old spinster with a smile and made of her what he will.

From admonition to allegory
In the pictures by Buesem and De Vois drink is chiefly associated with entertainment or comfort. Duyfhuysen, on the other hand, alludes to the specific effects of excessive drinking and smoking. Pieter Duyfhuysen’s tavern scene shows the wanton behaviour of peasants enjoying themselves playing cards and drinking and smoking. On closer inspection, however, we see that the sullen peasant is being ridiculed by his thin companion. The corpulent figure sits dejectedly filling his pipe in front of two lidded tankards. Here smoking is the key to the picture’s interpretation. Smoking had a bad reputation, both as a pernicious waste of time and because it was detrimental to one’s health. Smoking was believed to lead to impotence: it literally dried you up. To emphasise this the man’s large knife – harmless in its sheath – is dangling symbolically between his legs, just above a lidded tankard. The laughing man behind him has no such problem, underscored by the outsized flute stuck through his hat. Perhaps the onions – held to be an effective aphrodisiac – at the right of the peasant might help solve his impotency. Duyfhuysen’s genre pieces were frequently intended to convey a specific message, and in this picture everything alludes to a single theme. A work of this nature is called an allegory, in this case an allegory of impotence.

There is usually no problem interpreting the significance of pictures depicting biblical stories. A favourite subject of history pieces of this kind is the parable of the Prodigal Son, which was used as early as the sixteenth century to illustrate the disastrous results of profligacy.
In his version of the Prodigal Son Christoffel van der Laemen has combined two episodes from the New Testament. The scene in the background alludes to the fate that awaits the dissolute young man in the foreground. It forms the key to the representation and shows the Prodigal Son, now destitute, being chased out of a brothel. In the foreground we see him enjoying himself, oblivious of what is in store. In itself, the main subject of the painting – depicting a young man squandering his money on young girls, drink and gambling – contains no reference to the biblical story. It is clear, however, that the principal figure has ended up in dubious company. The old woman is unmistakeably a procuress who, moreover, is encouraging a young lad to steal a purse. The story is staged as a play; it looks like an interior scene, but in fact there is an open connection with the outdoor scene in the background. This is a well-known painterly device that allows two events to be recounted in one picture.

Proverbs are perfect vehicles for conveying a message. Established by Pieter Bruegel in Flanders, the painted proverb was propagated in the Dutch Republic by Adriaen van de Venne and Jan Steen, who also gave their pictures proverbs as titles. In Steen’s As the Old Sing, So Pipe the Young, we see the painter himself, in the role of father, setting a bad example by surreptitiously giving his son a pipe. The boy on the right is playing the bagpipes, an instrument that alludes to sex and folly. He is probably playing the tune of the song the old woman is singing from the songsheet in her hand. ‘As it’s sung, so it’s piped, that’s been known a long, long time. As I sing, so follow us, from child to centenarian.’ The pictorial representation of the proverb contains an abundance of other hidden references, all pointing to the same conclusion: if adults fail to set a good example, the young will come to a sticky end. Indeed the family will degenerate into a ‘Jan Steen household’.

The gulf between the rich and the poor
Jan Steen’s all-embracing theme is wantonness and excess, illustrating how prosperous families can easily be reduced to the proverbial ‘Jan Steen household’. But since his households are usually set in their own contemporary surroundings, he also flags-up a social development, familiar to us from printed sources. The seventeenth century’s increasing prosperity saw a widening gulf between the rich and the poor, with the result that the rich retreated more and more into their own homes. Their drawing-rooms and terraces were the settings for banquets and drinking parties where they were attended by their own servants. The tavern became the haunt of peasants and the lower and middle classes.

To the seventeenth-century burgher, the festivities of the well-to-do were perhaps more acceptable than peasant revelries. Nonetheless merry drinking pictures of the fashionable bourgeoisie also contained a cautionary message. In Van der Laemen’s Prodigal Son, we see a rich man’s son being duped by the lower classes. But the converse is also depicted. In Egbert van Heemskerck’s Tavern Scene a dignified gentleman is shown rasing an admonitory finger at a carousing company. He might be a preacher, a doctor or a judge. Whatever, he belongs to a different social class from the other people at the inn, and he patently disapproves of the dancing and feasting, exhorting the merrymakers to moderation with his raised hand.
This picture also provides us with a realistic portrayal of a seventeenth-century tavern. We see the pitchers and tankards of the regular customers hanging from a rack on the wall, while the landlady keeps a close eye on the serving hatch, tallying up the drinks on a slate. At the top of the stairs a wooden room, constructed so as to create a kind of entresol, affords a good view of the riotous behaviour going on below. Yet despite appearances, the biblical prints on the wall indicate that this is nonetheless a god-fearing company.

Overt wealth
There is no indication of a critical commentary on the opulence in Jacob Toorenvliet’s banquet piece. At the most the man behind the curtain might be casting a thoughtful glance. The principal character, by contrast, is a prosperous gentleman who is eager to emphasise his status by the presence of his black servant. The wine is cool, the terrace bathed in sunlight and adorned with classical columns, vases and statues. The elegant company is having a thoroughly splendid time. Toorenvliet affords us a superb illustration of a late seventeenth-century garden party. This was the dawn of the wealthy man of independent means; soon rich Dutchmen would move to England with William and Mary. Around the time of Toorenvliet’s death at the beginning of the eighteenth century symbolism largely disappeared from painting.

Militiamen and soldiers
The first half of the seventeenth century also saw the emergence of two other categories of figure painting – military scenes and militia banquets – in which the drinking rich and poor formed the focal theme. Peasants and the lower classes became soldiers, while city gentlemen joined militia companies. The counterpart of tavern scenes, military scenes are peopled with anonymous types who while away the time smoking, drinking, playing dice and disporting themselves with fun-loving women of easy virtue. Yet despite all the merriment, these pictures have a moralising undertone. Not so militia pieces. These are portraits of individual, recognisable, burgers who have gathered together for a festive banquet, where an admonitory finger would be out of place.

Military camps and kortegaardes, or guardroom scenes, came into vogue towards the end of the Eighty Years War, the majority being painted between 1625 and 1665. The Dutch word kortegaarde is derived from the French corps-de-garde and denotes the place where the guard on duty took a break. The pictures reveal that these were poorly lit, simple spaces devoid of any comfort. Little drinking went on in the guardroom itself, no doubt due to the regulation prohibiting drinking on duty. If a soldier were found drunk during his watch, he was immediately dismissed from military service. During the long waiting periods between marches and skirmishes the soldiers had little amusement other than drinking, smoking and gambling. Scenes of this nature are nearly always depicted out-of-doors against a background of tents and huts. Anthony and Palamedes Palamedesz., Dirck and Maerten Stoop, and Philips and Pieter Wouwerman are the most prominent artists to have specialised in painting the life of soldiers.
Frans Hals is the most celebrated exponent of the militia piece. Here Hals has depicted the banquet of the officers of the Haarlem company of harquebusiers. He has accorded equal attention to each portrait, producing a lively variety of poses. His restricted tonality of predominantly black, white, light-blue and yellow-gold shows a remarkable sensitivity to colour. In addition to being a portrait of a group of self-assured, high-spirited militiamen, this picture is also of social interest in its description of contemporary eating and drinking habits. White wine, poured by a servant from a pewter pitcher, is drunk out of berkemeyers and flute glasses. And in the middle of the table is a dish of poultry, from which each person in turn helps himself with his fork. The custom of laying tables with a dinner service, glasses and cutlery did not yet exist.

Large-scale half-length figures
Around 1620, under the influence of the Italian Michelangelo da Caravaggio, the Utrecht artists developed a new genre in painting: the large-scale half-figure, which through its attributes or treatment symbolised either a person, virtue or vice. Besides Hendrick Terbrugghen and Dirck van Baburen, it was Gerard van Honthorst who popularised figures of this type. The genre spread from Utrecht throughout the Dutch Republic, with Frans Hals and Rembrandt, as well as the Leiden fijnschilders, producing paintings in this manner, which continued to be executed in small format until the eighteenth century.

In this picture Gerard van Honthorst has depicted a beer-drinking shepherd rather than a peasant. The shepherd theme enjoyed great popularity at court. The vogue for the shepherd romance originated in Italy (shepherd falls in love with princess, but cannot marry her because of his lowly status, after a number of trials he turns out to be the son of a prince and they live happily ever after). Gerard van Honthorst, court painter par excellence, portrays a half-naked impishly laughing, shepherd with a herring in one hand a beer mug in the other. The erotic symbolism is readily grasped.
The militiaman with the empty glass by the Leiden fijnschilder Willem van Mieris concludes this section of the exhibition. This prosperous wine lover is the counterpart of Honthorst’s simple beer drinker. An apt title for the piece might be: ‘When the wine is in, the wit is out’, but such an interpretation is too free. A splendidly attired man has clearly drunk too much wine and is holding his glass upside down. It is drained of every drop. Will he refill his glass from the gleaming pewter pitcher, or should he call a halt? Van Mieris keeps us guessing. Does the empty goblet symbolise the ephemeral nature of mortal existence that is just as transient as the contents of the glass, as has been said of a similar picture by Jan Lievens? Or is our soldier a representation of the sense of taste? We do not know. Moreover, seventeenth-century observers could interpret pictures as they pleased. So, today, we can let our imagination run free and read the present-day message into it: ‘Enjoy, but drink in moderation’.

    Jan Jansz. Buesem

    Amsterdam c. 1600 - after 1649 Amsterdam

    Peasant Tavern

    Panel, 37.5 x 28.7 cm
    Painted circa 1630
    Signed: IB (upper right)
    Hoogsteder & Hoogsteder, The Hague

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    Pieter Duyfhuysen

    Rotterdam 1608 - 1677 Rotterdam

    Peasant Inn

    Panel, 39 x 51 cm
    Painted circa 1660
    Hoogsteder & Hoogsteder, The Hague

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    Egbert van Heemskerck

    Haarlem 1634 - 1704 London

    Tavern Scene

    Signed EVHK (right, centre of door) c. 1690/1700
    Canvas, 73 x 74 cm
    Hoogsteder & Hoogsteder, The Hague

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    Gerard van Honthorst

    Utrecht 1596 - 1656 Utrecht

    Beer Drinker / Pickled Herring

    Signed GHonthorst f (above right), c. 1625
    Canvas, 85 x 69 cm
    Private collection, Europe

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    Christoffel Jacobsz. van der Laemen

    Antwerp c. 1614 - 1651 Antwerp

    The Prodigal Son

    Panel, 57 x 74 cm
    Painted circa 1640
    Signed : vander Lamen fecit (above door)
    Hoogsteder & Hoogsteder, The Hague

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    Willem van Mieris

    Leiden 1662 - 1747 Leiden

    Militiaman with Empty Glass

    Panel, 30 x 23.5
    Painted circa 1690
    Hoogsteder & Hoogsteder, The Hague

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    Maerten Stoop

    Rotterdam c. 1620 - 1647 Utrecht

    Soldiers in a Camp

    c. 1640
    Canvas, 63.7 x 82 cm
    Hoogsteder & Hoogsteder, The Hague

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    Jacob Toorenvliet

    Leiden 1640 - 1719 Leiden

    Banquet in the Open Air

    Canvas, 61 x 72.5 cm
    Painted circa 1690
    Hoogsteder & Hoogsteder, The Hague

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    Arie de Vois

    Utrecht c. 1632 - 1680 Leiden

    Woman Drinking

    Panel, 25.5 x 20.5 cm
    Painted circa 1660
    Remains of signature: A (on table edge)
    Hoogsteder & Hoogsteder, The Hague

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