The gentle restraint of A Peasant Family in a Cottage after a Meal exemplifies Ostade’s paintings from the mid-1650s and 1660s, when he was at the height of his powers. Although famous throughout his career for his depictions of farmers and peasants, it was only around mid-century that Ostade created refined panels such as this, with its meticulous brushwork, rich coloring and sense of tranquility. Throughout its distinguished history, this small panel has been prized by generations of collectors and connoisseurs from the 18thcentury until the present day.
Ostade sets A Peasant Family in a Cottage after a Meal in a high-ceilinged room with an open hearth, a large mullioned window and a staircase presumably leading to an attic. The room, though modestly furnished and littered with broken pottery, household utensils and a few twigs, seems unexpectedly spacious for a peasant’s cottage. The inhabitants project a similar sense of comfort and ease: the parents sitting quietly near the fire, relaxing after their meal, and the children happily engaged with each other on the other side of the room. The figures are sturdy and their features, though unrefined, project an engaging openness. Ostade lavishes the figures and their surroundings with equal attention, giving weight and substance to the folds of the mother's head-cloth and delicately picking out the individual strands of flax on the wheel at the left. He uses light to tie it all together, constructing a pattern of bright highlights that progresses across the room, from the boy's cap at the window to the candle by the hearth; and transforming the daylight pouring through the window into a more muted glow that pervades the interior, creating this sense of tranquility. There are two known drawings related to the painting, both figure studies: A Seated Peasant with Fire Tongs in the Kunsthalle, Hamburg, and A Little Girl in a High Chair, from the collection of J.Q. van Regteren-Altena, Amsterdam (fig. 1).1 Both are boldly drawn in charcoal or black chalk on blue paper and heighted with white, as was usual for Ostade during this period.
In terms of both style and technique, A Peasant Family in a Cottage after a Meal is markedly different from Ostade’s earliest compositions, which are, for the most part, brightly painted scenes of carousing peasants – small wildly gesticulating figures generally behaving rather badly. Those pictures strongly reflect the influence of Adriaen Brouwer, who, according to Houbraken, worked together with Ostade in Frans Hals’s studio. It was not until the 1650s that Ostade began depicting peasants and tradesmen as respectable people rather than rustic caricatures. There are various theories to account for Ostade’s change in viewpoint, but Wayne Franits convincingly argues that the artist’s new approach was the result of a change in the culture at large resulting in the desire for a general code of civility.2 To greatly simplify his thesis: the upper classes wanted to believe that everyone in society was well-behaved and wished to decorate their houses with paintings that illustrated such behavior rather than with images of drunkeness and riotous living. Thus Ostade shows his peasants the same respect that Ochtervelt and ter Borch lavished on their elegant subjects, though the settings and clothing are worlds apart.
Ostade returned to this theme throughout the 1660s and 1670s, but in terms of composition and subject the closest parallel to the present work is A Peasant Family in a Cottage Interior (fig. 2), Sotheby’s, London, 7 July 2005, lot 18, also dated 1661 and of about the same size (34.9 by 31 cm). These two paintings, while not precisely a pair, are companion pieces and were listed sequentially in the early literature. In 1752 they are both recorded by Hoet as being in the collection of “den Hoog Ed. Heere Grave van Wassenaar &xc. &c.&c....3 Johan Hendrik Graaf van Wassenaer Obdam, came from a distinguished and powerful Dutch family and was himself a member of the Estates General and the Council of State. He died in 1745, but the bulk of his collection was not sold until 1750. Neither painting was included in the auction but apparently went instead to his younger brother, Unico Willem, a diplomat and composer. In 1769, three years after Unico's death, the pictures were included as consecutive lots in the sale of the remainder of the paintings, which, somewhat curiously, was still referred to as the collection of Johan Hendrik. This may have been the result of Unico's astonishing modesty. He composed the Concerti Armonici, six works long thought to have been by Ricciotti or Pergolesi. It was only in 1980 when a Dutch musicologist going through the Wassenaer family documents, discovered the original score and Unico Willem's letter to the publisher, that the pieces could be correctly attributed.
Both paintings then passed to France, where Dutch 17th century cabinet pictures were enormously popular. They were acquired by the Duc de Choiseul, Minister of War and Foreign Affairs to Louis XV, and were engraved for the Galérie Choiseul, an extraordinarily lavish volume documenting this celebrated collection. As the Galérie Choiseul was published in 1770, it seems likely that Choiseul either purchased the present work directly from the Wassenaer sale of the previous year, or had someone purchase it on his behalf. However, the London picture was not included in the Choiseul auction in 1772.4 The next owner was the Prince de Conti, another important figure at the court of Louis XV, who even attempted to have himself elected King of Poland.
The picture next went to Nicolas Beaujon, banker to Louis XV, who used part of his enormous fortune to form a collection of mainly Dutch 17th century and French 18th century art. It was purchased in Beaujon's deceased sale by P.F. Basan, a print-maker and dealer, who is perhaps best known today for his retouching of Rembrandt’s etching plates to hide the wear and make the prints more saleable. The painting is next recorded as in the collection of Alexander Baring, 1st Baron Ashburton and scion of the famous English banking family. It remained in the family until the early 20th century. It was subsequently acquired by Sir George Donaldson, a dealer and collector, who had strong ties to the Victoria and Albert Museum and later by Marcus Kappel, one of a group of astute Berlin collectors advised by Wilhelm von Bode in the 1920s. Since 1975, it has been in the family of the present owners.
1. See Schnackenburg, vol. I, pp. 112-113, cat. nos. 166 and 167, respectively. Ostade used the first drawing again in reverse for his 1767 painting of ??, now in the Hermitage, Leningrad.
2. W. Franits, Dutch Seventeenth-Century Genre Painting: Its Style and Thematic Evolution, New Haven and London 2004, pp. 135-139. See also W. Franits, “
3. Hoet, op.cit.
4. Lot 43 in the Choiseul sale has in the past been erroneously identified with the London painting. However, the description reads in part, "un troisiéme [enfan] est assis dans une petite chaise" (a third [child] is sitting in a little chair). As the third child in the London picture is standing before its mother and here is sitting in a high chair by the window, the Choiseul picture must be the present work. The same is true for lot 309 in the Conti sale.
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