The objects on the table – an innkeeper’s slate, playing cards, a pipe, a silver cup, a tankard and a backgammon box – imply that this is a tavern. The sleeping woman might be the innkeeper’s wife, a barmaid or, possibly, a prostitute, and the painting is drawing attention to her vices. Cards and backgammon were used for gambling, not a respectable activity for a woman. More seriously, she has been smoking and has fallen asleep drunk.
The leering men are clearly amused: one seems to use the stem of his pipe to draw open the front of her dress while his friend laughs. To the modern eye this is harassment, but in seventeenth-century Amsterdam attitudes differed. Female drunkenness was disapproved of in polite society and tobacco, considered an aphrodisiac, was seen as a threat to a woman’s virtue. But the Dutch also saw a funny side to lax moral behaviour, and paintings mocking such failings became popular.
We are in a tavern, or at least that is what is implied by the objects on the table. There’s an innkeeper’s slate – blank, with a piece of white chalk lying by it unused – a pack of playing cards, a pipe, a silver cup, a tankard and what is probably a backgammon box. The sleeping woman is either the innkeeper’s wife, a serving maid or, possibly, a prostitute. In a way, it doesn’t matter. The painting is not making a judgement about her status or profession but drawing attention to her vices.
Cards and backgammon were used for gambling, which was not a respectable activity for a woman. More seriously, she has been smoking and has probably fallen asleep because she has had too much to drink. The leering men are clearly amused by her state: one seems to use the stem of his pipe to draw open the front of her dress, while his friend looks on and laughs. Even the tavern dog has wandered over, curious to see what is going on.
To the modern eye this is harassment, but in seventeenth-century Amsterdam attitudes were very different. It was not uncommon for women to drink alcohol or to smoke, but female drunkenness was disapproved of in polite society. Tobacco, considered an aphrodisiac, was a potential threat to a woman’s virtue. The Dutch did see a funny side to lax moral behaviour, and scenes like this, where such failings were mocked, were a popular genre.
Metsu’s clients wouldn't have only appreciated the moral-comic theme; they were also connoisseurs of artistic technique. At the time Metsu was a young painter making his way in Amsterdam. Instead of specialising in a particular genre, as most artists did, he became something of a chameleon. He was able to adapt to whatever might be in demand, from interiors like this to portraits, history paintings and still-life paintings. Here he has taken the opportunity to demonstrate his skill at depicting different textures: the pattern and weave of Turkish rug on the table, the sheen of the metal cup, tankard and the dog’s collar, the animal’s fur. The faces of the figures are also carefully observed and they form a trio of contrasts, one laughing, one highly focused and one fast asleep, oblivious. The rest of the canvas is more freely painted, which is typical of Metsu’s work at the time.
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