During the Dutch Revolt of 1568–1648, when the northern Netherlands fought against their Spanish overlords, military scenes became increasingly popular. Willem Duyster was one of the artists who specialised in guardroom scenes showing soldiers relaxing off duty. Most such pictures were peaceful but in this painting violence has broken out. An argument among a group of soldiers over the distribution of booty has turned nasty and a fatal brawl has developed. Nevertheless, Duyster is intent on showing that this is not a visual report of a real incident but an imagined scene akin to theatre. The sumptuous costumes worn by the soldiers would have no place on the battlefield and the skirmish takes place as if on a stage. The viewer can enjoy the thrill of violence in complete safety while simultaneously relishing the display of luxury and painterly skill Duyster has laid out before them.
In the 1620s Willem Duyster was one of a group of Amsterdam artists who pioneered guardroom scenes (koortegaard), which focused on soldiers merry-making while off duty. Such images, along with associated military scenes such as army camp paintings (legercamp), pictures of peasants’ distress when caught up in war (boerenverdriet), and militia company portraits, became very popular in the first half of the seventeenth century.
Duyster’s small painting, however, is unusual in that it shows violent action. A brawl has broken out among soldiers billeted in a barn over the distribution of booty. Stolen fabrics, glass and plate tumble across the table and lie on the ground as the fight flares up. One soldier is stabbed in the chest and others are on the point of firing their muskets. A sword fight has started and the figure on the right, looking out of the picture to draw the viewer into the scene, calmly lights the fuse of his pistol before joining the fray.
The Eighty Years War of 1568–1648, also known as the Dutch Revolt, fought between the northern Netherlands and Spain, meant that wandering bands of soldiers accompanied by their followers were a common sight at the time. They were not always seen as a dangerous presence but often feature in ‘merry company’ paintings depicting convivial gatherings enlivened by music, drink or the presence of women. Duyster’s picture shows a merry company gone wrong, as the men who were comrades in arms just minutes before turn those same arms on one another.
Duyster makes it clear, though, that this is not a real scene. There is nothing to tie the action to a particular incident and the soldiers are dressed with an elaborate splendour that has no place among the dirt, smoke and blood of the battlefield. Instead, the action resembles a scene from a play with the barn acting as the stage. Duyster was known for his skill in painting fabrics and his soldiers display it to the full: each is dressed in a costume of a different colour with the result that a rainbow of satins and silks ripples from one side of the painting to the other.
Duyster himself was no stranger to violence. In 1625 he became involved in a fight with his fellow guardroom painter Pieter Codde at a country-house party and was struck in the face with a tin pitcher. He knew how danger could flare up from seemingly friendly situations. This painting of artificial ferocity would have given his patrons a pleasurable thrill of fear while still allowing them to enjoy the artist’s skilful display of luxury.
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