Merrymaking in Old Master Paintings

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Merrymaking scenes depict a group of figures enjoying themselves and surrendering to the pleasures of alcohol, lust, gambling, or music, and are a recurring theme in Old Master paintings. Inspired by Renaissance mythological feasts and Brueghel’s peasant scenes, Dutch artists such as Frans Hals further developed this tradition in the 17th Century, when the term ‘merry company’ was coined. This term in art history can refer to both rowdy tavern scenes and elegant companies in lavish interiors or gardens. French artists in the 18th Century, like Antoine Watteau, took the genre to new heights, producing ‘fête galante’. The reason these festive paintings maintained their popularity throughout the centuries is because viewers can relate to them, despite their hidden satirical, moralizing, or allegorical messages.

Click through the following festive paintings in our Old Masters Online sale and become acquainted with the different types of gatherings the Old Masters captured through the centuries.

Merrymaking in Old Master Paintings

  • Attributed to Marten Pepijn, The wedding feast of Bacchus and Ariadne. Estimate $15,000–20,000.
    Following in the tradition of the Italian Renaissance and Northern Mannerist artists, Pepijn depicts a mythological scene with the wedding of Bacchus. Paintings with mythological subjects gave artists the opportunity to show naked figures, which not only adds a seductive element, but also showcases the artist’s talent as a draftsman who can naturally depict the human body. The subject matter of this painting can easily be identified through specific motifs: Bacchus, the god of wine, is crowned by an intricate headpiece filled with grapes and vines, while Ariadne, the Cretan princess, is fully exposed with her stomach at the center of the composition, emphasizing her fertility. Even if viewers are not familiar with the mythological episode of this painting, they can certainly identify with a scene of debauchery, which made these paintings so popular through the centuries.
  • Workshop of Jan Massys, A merry company. Estimate $8,000–12,000.
    This satirical painting by the workshop of Jan Massys is an exemplary representation of peasants carousing, inspired by the earlier works of the Flemish Renaissance master, Pieter Brueghel. This painting takes a moralizing turn with the woman who distracts one of the cardplayers, since temptation can lead to the loss of one’s livelihood.
  • Jan H. Peypers, Interior scene with peasants playing cards. Estimate $4,000–6,000.
    Artists such as Adriaen Brouwer and Adriaen van Ostade were popular in the 17th century for depicting merrymaking peasants in interiors, a tradition Jan Peypers continues in the 20th Century. The exaggerated gestures and facial expressions of the cardplayers in this painting not only reaffirm the inebriated state of the figures, but also make this composition so amusing to a contemporary audience. This painting contains a warning through its frenzied figures, since too much drinking has made them lose control and could even cost them the game.
  • After Caspar Netscher, A musical company. Estimate $2,000–3,000.
    This painting serves as an example of an elegant company, or group of wealthy individuals, indicated by their flowing silk fabrics, enjoying music in a lavish interior. The sitters’ lack of animation, which sharply contrasts with the rowdy peasant scenes, further emphasizes their social class and behavioral standards. Meanwhile the lute the gentleman plays adds a sexual component since it is said to represent a woman’s body and could even be interpreted as a potential courtship between him and the central female figure.
  • After Caspar Netscher, A duet. Estimate $2,000–3,000.
    The term merry company is far from rigid and overlaps with other types of paintings such as elegant musical parties. The fanciful costumes of the sitters and the lavish interior decorated with columns elevate this painting from the merrymaking scenes in taverns. The lady who plays the piano appears to be in harmony with the gentleman who sings, alluding to a romantic connection beyond the music.
  • Flemish School, The Prodigal Son. Estimate $5,000–7,000.
    The subject of this painting is the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-13), which was a popular theme in Northern Europe from the 16th century well into the 18th century. It depicts the moment when the prodigal son squandered all his wealth in wild living in a distant place from home. Although this painting also falls under the genre of history painting, the figures are merrymaking in what could be a brothel. Even if viewers are not able to identify the moralizing episode of the Prodigal Son, this painting can stand on its own as a merry company.

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