Adriaen Brouwer (1605-1638)

Adriaen Brouwer

Adriaen Brouwer

Adriaen Brouwer was a Flemish painter active in Flanders and the Dutch Republic in the first half of the 17th century. Brouwer was an important innovator of genre painting through his vivid depictions of peasants, soldiers and other ‘lower class’ individuals engaged in drinking, smoking, card or dice playing, fighting, music making etc. in taverns or rural settings. Brouwer contributed to the development of the genre of tronies, i.e. head or facial studies, which investigate varieties of expression. In his final year he produced a few landscapes of a tragic intensity. Brouwer’s work had an important influence on the next generation of Flemish and Dutch genre painters.

There are still a number of unresolved questions surrounding the early life and career of Adriaen Brouwer. The early Dutch biographer Arnold Houbraken included multiple erroneous statements and fanciful stories about Brouwer in his The Great Theatre of Dutch Painters of 1718-1719. The most glaring mistakes of Houbraken were to place Brouwer’s place of birth in Haarlem in the Dutch Republic and to identify Frans Hals as his master.

It is now generally accepted that Brouwer was born in Oudenaarde in Flanders in the year 1605 or 1606. His father who was also called Adriaen worked as a tapestry designer in Oudenaarde, at the time an important center for tapestry production in Flanders. The father died in poverty when Adriaen the younger was only 15–16 years old. Brouwer had by that time already left the paternal home.

Brouwer worked in Antwerp in 1622. By March 1625 Adriaen Brouwer was recorded in Amsterdam where he resided in the inn of the painter Barent van Someren. Brouwer is further recorded on 23 July 1626 as a notary’s witness when he signed a statement of Barend van Someren and Adriaen van Nieulandt about at a sale of pictures in Amsterdam. It is possible that by that time he already lived in Haarlem. He was active in the Chamber of Rhetoric ‘De Wijngaertranken’ in Haarlem. The motto of this amateur literary circle was: In Love Above All Else.

In 1631 Brouwer returned to his native Flanders where he was registered as a master in the Antwerp Guild of St Luke even before he had become a poorter of Antwerp. The artist continued to live and work in Antwerp until his untimely death. The artist’s name regularly shows up in Antwerp records usually in connection with arrangements for his various debts.

In 1633 Brouwer was jailed in the citadel of Antwerp. The reason for the imprisonment is not clear. Possibly it was for tax evasion, or, alternatively, for political reasons because the local authorities may have considered him to be a spy for the Dutch Republic. The operation of the bakery in the Antwerp citadel was in the hands of the baker Joos van Craesbeeck. It is assumed that Brouwer and van Craesbeeck likely got to know each other during this time. Based on information provided by contemporary Flemish biographer Cornelis de Bie in his book Het Gulden Cabinet van Craesbeeck is believed to have become Brouwer’s pupil and best friend. Their relationship was described by de Bie as ‘Soo d’oude songhen, soo pypen de jonghen’ (As the old ones sang, so the young ones chirp’). The stylistic similarities of van Craesbeeck’s early work with that of Brouwer seem to corroborate such pupilage.

On 26 April 1634 Adriaen Brouwer took up lodgings in the house of the prominent engraver Paulus Pontius as the two men had become close friends. The same year the pair joined the local chamber of rhetoric Violieren. It has been suggested that Brouwer’s painting called Fat man or Luxuria (Mauritshuis), which possibly represents the deadly sin of lust, is at the same time a portrait of Paulus Pontius.

Early biographers describe how Adriaen Brouwer and his artist friends spent a lot of their time partying in the local taverns, often joined there by fellow artists. Brouwer painted a tavern scene called The smokers, which included a self-portrait together with portraits of Jan Cossiers, Jan Lievens, Joos van Craesbeeck and Jan Davidsz. de Heem (c. 1636, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). The company of friends is shown sitting around a table and smoking. Brouwer is the figure in the middle who is turned around to face the viewer. This type of group portrait doubled as a representation of one of the five senses (in this case the sense of taste).

Despite his reported dissolute lifestyle and his preference for low-life subjects, Brouwer was highly respected by his colleagues as evidenced by the fact that Rubens owned 17 works by Brouwer at the time of his death, of which at least one had been acquired before Rubens got to know Brouwer personally. Rembrandt also had paintings by Brouwer in his collection.

In 1635 Brouwer took on Jan-Baptist Dandoy (active 1631-1638) as his only officially registered pupil. In January 1638 Adriaen Brouwer died in Antwerp. Some early biographers associated his early death with his party lifestyle and abuse of alcohol. Houbraken, however, attributes his death to the plague. Evidence for the latter is that originally his remains were buried in a common grave. Only a month after his death, his body was re-interred in the Carmelite Church of Antwerp on 1 February 1638 after a solemn ceremony and at the initiative and expense and in the presence of his artist friends.

Brouwer left a small body of work amounting to about 60 works. Just a few of his works are signed, while none is dated. As Brouwer was widely copied, imitated and followed in his time, attributions of work to Brouwer are sometimes uncertain or contested. For instance, The smoker (Louvre) showing a man exhaling smoke while holding a bottle of liquor was attributed for a long time to Brouwer, but is now given to Brouwer’s follower and, possibly, pupil Joos van Craesbeeck.

The principal subject matter of Brouwer are genre scenes with peasants, soldiers and other ‘lower class’ individuals engaging in drinking, smoking, card or dice playing, fights etc. often set in taverns or rural settings. Brouwer also contributed to the development of the genre of tronies, i.e. head or facial studies, which investigate varieties of expression. He produced a few landscapes in the final years of his career. Brouwer’s compositions are nearly all executed in small format.

Brouwer was influenced by Dirck Hals, a genre painter who was active in Haarlem. Brouwer’s stylistic development cannot be traced with certainty. Pictures in bright natural colours are believed to have been painted in the 1620s. Around 1630, Brouwer’s palette started showing a strong preference for browns, greys and greens. The painter had a free, sketchy manner of painting and applied paint thinly.

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