A somewhat crude-looking man has just swallowed a bitter medicine and his face expresses his disgust of it in all possible ways. The painting, which depicts the man’s physical reflexes quite convincingly, may be a representation of the sense of taste. Some parts of the canvas, especially the background, are painted rather roughly, but the facial features are rendered very precisely.
Its creator, Adriaen Brouwer (1605–1638), specialized in witty low-life scenes, mostly of drunken peasants, brawls and debauchery. Such scenes were popular among townspeople who would look with amusement at these uncivilized figures. Amongst his many admirers were both Rubens and Rembrandt, who had quite a few of his paintings in their personal collections.
There are many uncertainties about Brouwer’s life. For example, it is assumed, but not proven, that he was originally from Flanders. Furthermore, there is no concrete evidence for the current theory that he was a pupil of Frans Hals. It is not unlikely though, because we know that Brouwer was active as a painter in Hals’s residence Haarlem before settling for good in Antwerp in the early thirties. Brouwer's style also points in this direction: it combines the individuality and loose working method typical of Dutch artists like Hals with the Flemish interest in peasant scenes.
The lack of biographical data led to a stream of speculations about his personal life. A romantic image was created of a bohemian artist who drank and smoked all the time, painting in crowded pubs, amidst his subjects. Such assumptions arose from the well-known tendency to identify an artist with his work.
In the case of Adriaen Brouwer, we shall never be fully able to separate myth and reality. What’s left is a magnificent oeuvre, full of vibrant paintings that offer a glimpse into a raw world from centuries ago.
(text: Maarten Gaillard)