This somewhat cheeky image was painted by Adriaen van der Werff (1659 –1722). The style of this Dutch artist is considered to be a transition between the seventeenth-century Baroque and the more classical, elegant manner of the eighteenth century. Amorous Couple Spied upon by Children is a relatively early work, dating from 1694. Later in his career, when he had acquired fame as a ‘noble’ and elevated artist, Van der Werff disassociated himself from these frivolous, ‘immature’ paintings.
The panel depicts a, barely covered, young man and woman who seem oblivious to the presence of the children on the right, who are secretly spying on them from behind the bushes. A saucy detail is the glance the woman throws at the viewer, essentially turning us into voyeurs. Some other elements in the background, like the statues of the dancing satyr and Silenus - the always drunken companion of the god Dionysus – further emphasize the painting’s erotic character.
The sculptures also add to the classical atmosphere of the scene, as do the wreath on the head of the young man, the flute on the ground and the couple’s garments. They place the painting in the pastoral tradition, a genre celebrating the classical past in an idealized manner. One of its standard features is the Arcadian romance of amorous shepherds.
Van der Werff was widely praised for his fabulous skills, not just by his compatriots, but throughout Europe. His fine paintings, mostly biblical and (erotic) mythological scenes, were fanatically collected by rulers such as Louis XVI of France and Frederick the Great. Unfortunately, Van der Werff would posthumously fall out of grace, as museums and art historians in later centuries blamed him for ‘betraying’ the Dutch realistic tradition.
(text: Maarten Levendig and Pauline Dorhout)