A towering rain cloud seems to threaten an early close to this game of archery. Perhaps the storm will come as a relief – although the archer takes aim with an eager eye, only one of the three arrows already shot has hit the target. The game seems almost incidental, however: Teniers is here telling a secondary tale that, on careful viewing, takes the more important role in the picture. Only the two players, the seated man and the umpire seem interested in the archery. Most of the others appear to be up to mischief.
Teniers depicted peasants as caricatures repeated against unidentified, probably imaginary backgrounds. They are like the characters from the popular commedia dell’arte and often appear to be involved in a scam; here, the pompous man in the black hat seems ripe for exploitation, and a lively figure in a red hat runs between two groups of plotters. With pictures like these, a wealthy collector could enjoy the commedia dell’arte without stirring from his fireside.
A towering rain cloud seems to threaten an early close to the game of archery played by the peasants in the foreground. Perhaps the storm will come as a relief – although the archer takes aim with an eager eye, only one of the three arrows already shot has hit the target, so he’s unlikely to win.
But the game seems almost incidental to the scene. Teniers is telling a secondary tale that, on careful viewing, takes the more important role in the picture. Only four of the figures seem interested in the archery: the two players, the seated man in the centre and the young man on the right perhaps acting as umpire. The rest appear otherwise occupied, most of them up to mischief. Perhaps the raincloud is an omen that a squall might break out between these more disreputable characters.
Adriaen Brouwer, a successful artist of a generation earlier than Teniers, also painted peasant scenes. Teniers was influenced by these pictures, although he toned down the older artist’s bawdier, more raucous style. He depicted peasants as a prosperous collector might enjoy seeing them: caricatures repeated against unidentified, probably imaginary, backgrounds that often included an inn. Ultimately, most of the peasant scenes of both artists stem from the ancient comedies of the Greeks and Romans that were still popular in the form of the commedia dell’arte, also known as the Italian comedy. Groups of travelling players were to be seen all over Europe, performing slapstick entertainments improvised around a series of basic story outlines and physical gags.
The man in the black hat on the left is seemingly an official. To emphasise his importance – and perhaps his self-importance – the large white document he holds is given as much prominence as the white shirt of the archer. He is just the kind of person commedia characters loved to trick. The others gather round, thrust a drink at him and apparently listen to him with rapt attention, setting up their scam. A central character runs to the two men planning trouble on the far side. His bright red hat suggests that he might be seen as Arlecchino, or Harlequin, quick and lithe, changing sides as it profited him and always narrowly avoiding his double-dealing being revealed.
These same commedia characters appear in Teniers’s A View of a Village with Three Peasants talking in the Forground, though in a different configuration. The man in the red hat and blue coat in Peasants at Archery is probably based on the character Il Dottore, a greedy drunkard who talks a lot; he also appears in A Man holding a Glass and an Old Woman lighting a Pipe. Even the frisky little dog dances in and out of many of Teniers’s comic peasant paintings. With pictures like these a wealthy collector could enjoy the commedia dell’arte, constructing his own scenarios without stirring from his fireside.
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