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Detail from Vermeer's Music Lesson
This exhibition is in the past. View our current exhibitions.

Rude Mechanicals

The comic peasant types, invented by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c.1525 – 69), peopled the genre paintings of Dutch as well as Flemish artists throughout the seventeenth century. They seem to be made less of human anatomy than of stuffed clothing, in the manner of a rag doll. Puck describes the ‘rude mechanicals’ in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream in a similar vein as ‘hempen homespuns’. The peasants in these paintings may be absurd, but they are not necessarily sinful; Bruegel’s legacy can be seen in the peace-loving cottagers of isack and Adriaen van Ostade (cats 15 – 17) as well as the multi-figure free-for-alls of Jan Steen (cats 25 and 26). The moral of these scenes of vice was probably the same for seventeenth as for sixteenth-century audiences, but the mood has lightened. Steen in particular often includes a self-portrait (see cats 21, 24 and 26), boozing and brawling with the best of them and always laughing, as if to invite our indulgence.

A Village Revel©

The odd one out in this section is the scene of Roman street life by Karel du Jardin (cat. 7), which depicts peasants not in the comfortable surroundings of a Dutch inn but in the menacing shadow of a huge ancient structure.

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