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Gabriel Metsu, Two Men with a Sleeping Woman

Key facts
Full title Two Men with a Sleeping Woman
Artist Gabriel Metsu
Artist dates 1629 - 1667
Date made about 1655-60
Medium and support Oil on oak
Dimensions 37.1 × 32.4 cm
Inscription summary Signed
Acquisition credit Wynn Ellis Bequest, 1876
Inventory number NG970
Location Not on display
Collection Main Collection
Previous owners
Two Men with a Sleeping Woman
Gabriel Metsu

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.

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