Merry company

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Merry company is the term in art history for a painting, usually from the 17th century, showing a small group of people enjoying themselves, usually seated with drinks, and often music-making. Merry company_sentence_0

These scenes are a very common type of genre painting of the Dutch Golden Age and Flemish Baroque; it is estimated that nearly two thirds of Dutch genre scenes show people drinking. Merry company_sentence_1

The term is the usual translation of the Dutch geselschapje, or vrolijk gezelschap, and is capitalized when used as a title for a work, and sometimes as a term for the type. Merry company_sentence_2

The scenes may be set in the home, a garden, or a tavern, and the gatherings range from decorous groups in wealthy interiors to groups of drunk men with prostitutes. Merry company_sentence_3

Gatherings that are relatively decorous and expensively dressed, with similar numbers of men and women, often standing, may be called Elegant Company or Gallant Company, while those showing people who are clearly peasants are more likely to use that word in their title. Merry company_sentence_4

Such subjects in painting are most common in Dutch art between about 1620 and 1670. Merry company_sentence_5

Scope of the term Merry company_section_0

The definition of a "merry company" is far from rigid, and overlaps with several other types of painting. Merry company_sentence_6

Portraits of family groups or bodies such as militia companies may borrow an informal style of composition from them, but works where the figures were intended to represent specific individuals are excluded. Merry company_sentence_7

There are normally between four and about a dozen figures shown, which typically includes both men and women, but may just consist of men, perhaps with female servants, as in the Buytewech illustrated. Merry company_sentence_8

Contemporary Dutch descriptions of paintings from inventories, auction catalogues and the like, use (no doubt somewhat arbitrarily) other terms for similar compositions including "a buitenpartij (an outdoor party or picnic), a cortegaarddje (a barrack-room or guardroom scene), a borddeeltjen (a bordello scene), and a beeldeken or moderne beelden (a picture with little figures or modern figures)". Merry company_sentence_9

"Musical party" or "concert" is often used when some of the main figures are playing instruments. Merry company_sentence_10

More generally such works may be referred to as "company paintings" or "company subjects" (but this is not to be confused with Indian Company painting, a style patronized by the British East India Company). Merry company_sentence_11

Few if any titles used for 17th century genre paintings can be traced to the artist; those used by museums and art historians today may derive from a record in the provenance or be made up in modern times. Merry company_sentence_12

Paintings showing specific celebrations such as weddings or the festivities for Twelfth Night, the main mid-winter celebration in the Netherlands, or the playing of specific games, are likely to have titles relating to these where the subject is still clear. Merry company_sentence_13

For example, a painting by Godfried Schalcken (1665–1670, Royal Collection) is known from his biography by his pupil Arnold Houbraken to represent The game of 'Lady, Come into the Garden', and is so titled, although the rules of this are now unknown but "clearly involved the removal of clothes", at least by some male participants. Merry company_sentence_14

In La Main Chaud ("the hot hand") male participants just got smacked. Merry company_sentence_15

Paintings showing the parable of the Prodigal Son in his prodigal phase are conceived as merry company scenes of the brothel type, though they are often larger, as was expected of a history painting. Merry company_sentence_16

Interpretation Merry company_section_1

As with other types of Netherlandish genre painting, the body of merry company paintings include some with a clear moralistic intention, carrying a message to avoid excess in drink, lavish spending, low company and fornication. Merry company_sentence_17

Others seem merely to celebrate the pleasures of sociability, often with a socially aspirational element. Merry company_sentence_18

Many fall somewhere in between, are hard to interpret, and "contain within them an obvious contradiction between their goal of condemning certain types of excessive behaviour and the amusing and attractive aspect of this very behaviour and its representation". Merry company_sentence_19

Often the art historian wishing to interpret them has first to decide such questions as whether the scene is placed in a home, a tavern or a brothel, and if a tavern whether the women present are respectable or prostitutes, or whether the artist had a intention to convey definite meaning to his contemporary viewers on these questions at all. Merry company_sentence_20

The titles given later to paintings often distinguish between "taverns" or "inns" and "brothels", but in practice these were very often the same establishments, as many taverns had rooms above or behind set aside for sexual purposes: "Inn in front; brothel behind" was a Dutch proverb. Merry company_sentence_21

Scenes with prostitutes do not reflect the realities of 17th century prostitution in many ways, but offer a conventionalized visual code. Merry company_sentence_22

The madam or (as art historians like to call them) "procuress" is always an aged crone, whereas court records for Amsterdam (the national centre for Dutch prostitution) show that most were still fairly young, and 40% in their twenties. Merry company_sentence_23

The presence of a procuress figure is by itself sufficient to justify interpreting a painting as a brothel scene. Merry company_sentence_24

Fine clothes (rented from the madam) and in particular feathers in headresses are said to be signifiers of prostitutes, as well as the more obvious loosened clothes, low cleavages, and a provocative frontal stance. Merry company_sentence_25

But in the later part of the century demure downcast looks by the woman feature in many scenes thought to represent prostitution; in the famously ambiguous threesome The Gallant Conversation by Gerard ter Borch, the young woman is seen only from behind. Merry company_sentence_26

Of one painting by Jacob Ochtervelt, (c. 1670, now Cleveland, illustrated at left) Wayne Franits says: Merry company_sentence_27

According to Simon Schama, Merry company_sentence_28

Jan Steen owned a tavern for a period, living on the premises, and often included portraits of himself and members of his family in "genre" works. Merry company_sentence_29

Gerrit van Honthorst, who painted several scenes that, like the one illustrated here, clearly do show prostitution, married the daughter of the proprietress of a tavern and a wine merchant, who was a distant cousin and something of an heiress. Merry company_sentence_30

The traditional interpretation and title of his Prodigal Son in Munich has been challenged, with the assertion that it merely shows a "festive" tavern scene, despite the presence of an older woman and feathers in the girls' hair, often taken as diagnostic of a brothel scene. Merry company_sentence_31

Elmer Kolfin, in "the first comprehensive study to date on the merry company in Dutch art during the first half of the seventeenth century" divides the pictures "into three iconographic categories: "idealistic", which present mainly positive views of the festive activities depicted; "moralistic", in which such activities are condemned from a moral point of view; and "satirical", in which they are held up for ridicule, but chiefly for comic rather than moralizing effect" seeing a movement away from moralistic to idealistic treatments from the 16th to the 17th century. Merry company_sentence_32

Other scholars see a large group of paintings as deliberately ambiguous or open in their meaning; the limited evidence we have suggests they were often displayed in the main rooms of their owners' houses. Merry company_sentence_33

The exceptional freedom allowed to Dutch women amazed and usually horrified foreign visitors; according to the visiting Englishman Fynes Moryson: Merry company_sentence_34

Many paintings have lightly worn allegorical schemes; a plate of food, tobacco pipe, musical instrument and a squeeze, kiss or slap will be enough to make any group into an Allegory of the Five Senses. Merry company_sentence_35

Many may illustrate the endless supply of moralistic Dutch proverbs. Merry company_sentence_36

Development of the type Merry company_section_2

Courtly party scenes, typically of couples of young lovers in a "garden of love", were popular in the late Middle Ages, mostly in illuminated manuscripts and prints rather than panel paintings, and often as part of calendar series showing the months, or book illustrations. Merry company_sentence_37

In the Renaissance such scenes tended to be given specific settings from religion or classical mythology, such as the Feast of the Gods which, unlike merry company scenes, was an excuse for copious amounts of nudity. Merry company_sentence_38

In 16th century Dutch and Flemish Renaissance painting traditions of genre painting of festivities or parties began to develop, most famously in the peasant scenes of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, which were the first large paintings to have peasant life as their sole subject. Merry company_sentence_39

There was also a tradition of moralizing urban scenes, including subjects such as the "Ill-matched Couple" and "Prodigal Son", and a court tradition of recording actual or typical entertainments at a particular court, with portraits of the leading personages. Merry company_sentence_40

The Feast of Herod with the Beheading of St John the Baptist by the German-Silesian artist Bartholomeus Strobel (c. 1630-43, Prado) is an exceptionally large treatment of a subject often used since the 15th century to depict a courtly banquet. Merry company_sentence_41

The Feast in the House of Levi by Paolo Veronese (1573, Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice) is another famous and huge treatment of a grand feast. Merry company_sentence_42

The "courtly company scene" with anonymous genre figures developed in the first years of the 17th century in both the Northern and Southern Netherlands, now separated by the Eighty Years War. Merry company_sentence_43

As the subject type developed, so did differences between the two regions: Flemish painting covered a wider range of settings in terms of class, with peasant scenes remaining strongly represented, and many scenes showing court milieus. Merry company_sentence_44

Dutch painting concentrated on a class spectrum that might all be called middle-class, though ranging from elegant patrician companies to scruffy and rowdy groups. Merry company_sentence_45

Flemish scenes tend to have far more characters, and the tranquil middle class group of four or five people sitting round a table at home is not seen. Merry company_sentence_46

Whereas most Dutch paintings, except for those by the Utrecht Caravaggisti, had small figures, the "monumental company scene" remained part of Flemish painting, with Jacob Jordaens producing several examples, especially of Twelfth Night festivities. Merry company_sentence_47

By the 1630s artists in both regions, but especially the north, tended to specialize in particular genres, and the merry company was no exception. Merry company_sentence_48

Painters Merry company_section_3

The first generation of Dutch painters included Willem Pieterszoon Buytewech (1591/1592–1624), who can claim to have invented the small interior merry company, Other early artists were David Vinckboons (1576–1629), and Esaias van de Velde (1587–1630), who was an even more significant pioneer of realistic landscape painting, in a completely different style to his elegant garden parties. Merry company_sentence_49

The famous portraitist Frans Hals was attributed with a single very early merry company, a gallant picnic of about 1610, which was destroyed in Berlin in World War II; he also painted a "close-up" genre depiction of three revellers. Merry company_sentence_50

His younger brother Dirck Hals (1591–1656) was a prolific specialist in small merry company groups. Merry company_sentence_51

By about 1630 active painters included Hendrik Gerritsz. Merry company_sentence_52 Pot (1587–1657), also a portraitist, Anthonie Palamedesz. Merry company_sentence_53

(1601–1673), Pieter Codde (1599–1678), and Jacob Duck (1600–1667). Merry company_sentence_54

Codde and Duck, with Willem Duyster, were also painters of "guardroom scenes", which showed soldiers specifically, and became popular in the 1630s; as Lucy van de Pol notes, the sailors who made up a great part of the clientele of taverns and brothels, at least in Amsterdam, are very rarely represented. Merry company_sentence_55

After about the mid-century many "company paintings" showed smaller and more quiet groups more firmly located in homes, often with more narrative elements and a greater concentration on effects of lighting and texture. Merry company_sentence_56

Pictures showing many of the same interests as "company" works, but just using couples or individuals become very common. Merry company_sentence_57

The paintings of Vermeer, none of which quite fall into the category of "merry company" works, exemplify this trend, which is also seen in those of Gerard ter Borch, Gabriel Metsu, Gerrit Dou, and Pieter de Hooch. Merry company_sentence_58

The works of Jan Steen (c. 1626–1679) maintained the tradition of rowdy drinking groups, but usually with a setting showing a specific occasion, or illustrating a proverb. Merry company_sentence_59

Many show family groups, and often a self-portrait is included. Merry company_sentence_60

Flemish artists include David Vinckboons, who moved to the north as a young adult, Frans Francken II with his uncle Hieronymus I and brother Hieronymus II, Sebastian Vrancx, Louis de Caullery, all painting courtly scenes, often with small figures and much attention given to the architectural settings in or outside sumptuous palaces. Merry company_sentence_61

Simon de Vos (1603–1676), painted smaller scenes closer to the Dutch style. Merry company_sentence_62

The Bruegel tradition of peasant scenes was continued by his sons Jan Brueghel I and Peter Brueghel the Younger, mostly painting kermesse-type festivities with large numbers of figures, most often outdoors. Merry company_sentence_63

Smaller groups in interiors were pioneered by the intensely naturalistic Adriaen Brouwer, who was Flemish but also worked and sold in Haarlem in the north, where he greatly influenced Adriaen van Ostade, the leading Dutch painter of peasants. Merry company_sentence_64

Brouwer's sordid scenes are short on merriment, but van Ostade softened and sentimentalized his style. Merry company_sentence_65

David Teniers the Elder, his son David Teniers the Younger as well as other members of the family included many peasant scenes in their large and varied output. Merry company_sentence_66

Most of the works of all these painters lie outside the typical boundaries of the "merry company", in terms of the number of figures or their class, but many fall within; there was also a later generation of Flemish painters of peasant scenes. Merry company_sentence_67

Rubens, who owned 17 paintings by Adriaen Brouwer, painted a few kermesse and other peasant scenes that are highly successful, despite their very heroic style. Merry company_sentence_68

He also painted a few large courtly company scenes, including his Garden of Love, (Prado, 1634-5). Merry company_sentence_69

Apart from Jordaens and Rubens, Flemish painters of monumental company scenes included Theodoor Rombouts (1597–1637), who made several large paintings of card-players, Cornelis de Vos, and Jan Cossiers. Merry company_sentence_70


Credits to the contents of this page go to the authors of the corresponding Wikipedia page: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Merry company.