David Teniers painted caricatures in imaginary landscapes, a background to his comic characters. Here, three men stand facing each other in a circle. One reaches into an inner pocket and looks with a shifty half-smile at the man in the blue coat, whose straight back hints at a military background. The old man on the left leans heavily on his stick, but the jaunty feather in his cap implies that he isn’t as feeble as he appears.
They resemble traditional characters from the ancient Greek comedy that still existed in the form of the Italian commedia dell’arte: Harlequin, the trickster; Pantalone, old and doddery but with his wits about him; and the Captain, a show-off and a coward at heart. And the man running away is a Zanne, an acrobat who would enthusiastically whack people with a slapstick before disappearing at the first sign of trouble.
David Teniers the Younger was the most famous and successful seventeenth-century Dutch painters of peasant life. Such pictures were popular because they often showed the countryside – an enjoyable view for a city dweller – but more particularly because they showed its inhabitants as awkward, often ugly, probably stupid, but always funny in seventeenth-century terms.
Teniers painted caricatures, placing them in an imaginary, generalised landscape, seldom showing anywhere identifiable. It was simply a background to the comic events acted out by his characters. In this picture a stream passes in front of a farmhouse with a thatched roof. A substantial church appears in the background, perhaps a suggestion that the bad behaviour of the characters is under surveillance. There is often a moral point to Teniers’ pictures, at the time enjoyed by polite middle-class purchasers.
In the centre, three men stand facing each other in a tight circle. Their three long sticks cross each other in a complicated pattern that suggests disorder. One man reaches into an inner pocket and looks with a shifty half-smile at the man in the smart blue coat, whose straight back hints at a military background. The old man on the left leans heavily on his stick. He has a large nose and white beard and a slightly blank stare, but the jaunty feather in his cap implies that he isn’t as feeble as he appears.
They resemble versions of traditional characters from the ancient Greek comedy that had passed down through the ages and still existed in the form of the Italian commedia dell’arte which had spread across Europe: Arlecchino, or Harlequin, the trickster; Pantalone, or Pantaloon, old and doddery but with his wits about him; and Il Capitano, the Captain, a boastful show-off and a coward at heart, always confounded by the others. The man running away with the handful of twigs would have been a Zanne, an acrobat who would enthusiastically whack people with a slapstick before disappearing at the first sign of trouble. The young woman looking back at the men from the doorway of the farm is like one of the female characters there to provide love interest, who may be complicit in any scams being played out.
In the background, the configuration of the foreground figures is copied by three men adding to the joke by standing in a circle to relieve themselves against a post. A fourth makes use of a handy doorway, turning back in a repeat of the woman’s position in the foreground. The commedia dell’arte was simple, basic and bawdy and so are Teniers’ paintings. He was influenced by the work of Adriaen Brouwer, whose depictions of peasants stemmed from the same sources but were even more extreme in their ugliness and lewd humour. His Tavern Scene, also in the National Gallery’s collection, makes Teniers' work seem restrained by comparison.
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