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Two Lovers at Table
Hendrick Sorgh
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A love-struck man stares lustfully at a young woman. She in turn stares directly at us with a knowing smile, holding his chin with her left hand – a look and a gesture which clearly underlines her power over him. Meanwhile, in the gloom at the back of the room, an old lady looks in at the door: she is a brothel keeper.

The artist’s message? Here is a man who, succumbing to erotic temptation, is being exploited by women. But as well as this moral theme, there is knowing humour and plenty of double entendres in the scene. The vertical thrust of the wine glass in the man’s hand, not far from his groin, is an obvious example.

The painting has a pair, A Woman Playing Cards with Two Peasants, which plays on a similar theme, but is harder to interpret – it may echo the same theme, or provide a counter to it.

Key facts
Artist Hendrick Sorgh
Artist dates 1610 or 1611 - 1670
Full title Two Lovers at Table
Group Two Genre Scenes
Date made 1644
Medium and support Oil on oak
Dimensions 26.4 x 36.4 cm
Inscription summary Signed; Dated
Acquisition credit Bequeathed by John Henderson, 1879
Inventory number NG1056
Location in Gallery Gallery A: Paintings after 1600
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Two Genre Scenes

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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.

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