Hendrick Sorgh, Two Lovers at Table
Two Genre Scenes
These two small parlour paintings might represent two complementary variations on the same theme or two contrasting ones. In Two Lovers at Table, a man stares lustfully at a young woman. She gives us a knowing smile, and a brothel-keeper waits in the background. This is a man succumbing to erotic temptation and being exploited by women. But there is less certainty about A Woman Playing Cards with Two Peasants. In it, a woman reaches for her winnings from a male opponent. It may be that she has tempted him into a game of cards but the deceit could be working the other way: perhaps he allowed her to win in the hope of gaining her favour.
The latter interpretation suggests that one painting illustrates the deceit of men, its pair the deceit of women. But if we see the woman as the trickster in both, then each must be a warning to men about manipulative women.
These two small parlour paintings were almost certainly made as a pair. They are the same size, and both were probably originally rectangular and shaped into ovals at a later date. They also have a similar setting, probably an inn, a cast of three and comic undertones. But whether they represent two complementary variations on the same theme or two contrasting ones is open to debate.
Two Lovers at Table seems relatively straightforward. A love-struck man holding a wine glass stares lustfully at a young woman, while she meets our eye with a knowing smile. The vertical thrust of the wine glass in the man’s hand, not far from his groin, and the flask with an open neck, just beneath the woman’s seat, would have been interpreted by many viewers as sexual references. If we were in any doubt about the situation, we need only peer into the gloom at the back of the room where a brothel-keeper is looking in at the door. Here is a man succumbing to erotic temptation and being exploited by women.
There is less certainty about its companion piece, A Woman Playing Cards with Two Peasants. Here we see the woman reaching for her winnings from a disconsolate male opponent; another man looks on with amusement. It either reinforces the idea that women make fools of men, as in Two Lovers at Table or presents the opposite view, depending on the way you interpret the scene. It may be that the woman has tempted the man into a game of cards, and we see her trump his trick and reach out for his money. But it may be that the deceit is working the other way: her amorous opponent has allowed her to win in the hope of gaining her favour, or he is subtly rewarding her in advance for the favours he hopes she will confer on him.
If we accept the latter interpretation then one of these paintings illustrates the deceit of men, the other the deceit of women. If we see the woman as the trickster in both, then they become a warning to men against the manipulations of women. Perhaps the artist deliberately left the meanings unresolved – all part of the fun of the pairing.