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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.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder was still revered in the Low Countries a century after his death in 1569. At this date in his native Flanders artists, like David Teniers, were still creating multi-narrative crowd scenes; in the Dutch Republic on the other hand g

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.

Karel du Jardin (Amsterdam c.1626-Venice 1678)

A Muleteer and two Men playing the Game of Morra

Adriaen van Ostade (Haarlem 1610-Haarlem 1685)

The Interior of a Peasant's Cottage

Adriaen van Ostade (Haarlem 1610-Haarlem 1685)

An elderly Couple in an Arbour

Isack van Ostade (Haarlem 1621-Haarlem 1649)

A Village Fair, with a Church behind

Jan Steen (Leiden 1626-Leiden 1679)

A Village Revel

Jan Steen (Leiden 1626-Leiden 1679)

Merrymaking in a Tavern with a Couple dancing

Jan Steen (Leiden 1626-Leiden 1679)

A Twelfth Night Feast: 'The King drinks'

Jan Steen (Leiden 1626-Leiden 1679)

Cardplayers in a Tavern