This unlined canvas is one of Esaias van de Velde's two earliest merry companies and has been unknown to the market for over fifty years. Signed and dated 1614, An elegant company in a garden is an important transitional work in a genre that moved from the realm of the sacred to that of the secular, making it one of the most popular subjects on the art market between 1615 and 1645. In this beautifully preserved work a group of elegant young men and women sit around a table in a garden setting. A stepped shelf on the right displaying gold and silver vessels and a makeshift canopy overhead enclose the group in a kind of open air dining room and the meal, or at least the first course, is finished. The company has broken into smaller groups to chat and play music. The woman in a chair seen from behind at the lower right has attracted the attention of several young men who pose elegantly and appear to listen intently to her conversation. A single couple still sits on the far side of the table while a servant at the lower left prepares oysters. The man playing a lute in the exact center of the composition looks directly at the viewer. He knows what the dog with a stick in its mouth does not: no one is leaving anytime soon. Strolling couples in the distance identify the setting as a pleasure garden or the grounds of a country house and the young men and women who inhabit it are members of the aristocracy dressed in the height of fashion.
Esaias' Elegant company in a garden and his Garden party before a palace painted the same year (Mauritshuis, The Hague) are the earliest merry company scenes to exclude the moralizing iconography of their predecessors. None of the young men in this painting wear the chain associated with the prodigal son and no evidence of such compromising activities as gambling and whoring appear. This is a world of pure luxury consisting of leisure time, lavish meals and the possibility of coupling.
The modern merry company derived from scenes of the prodigal son by artists of the previous generation such as Hans Bol (1534-93). In his drawings of the 1570s, most likely intended as designs for prints, the prodigal son appears with his companions strolling, making music or drinking wine in a garden setting. Bol's depiction of spring from his series of the seasons of 1573 reflects his scenes of the prodigal son at leisure but the moralizing references have been replaced with the more positive associations between a lush landscape and fertility. Spring is represented by shady groves populated by amorous couples.
Another important figure in the emergence of the modern merry company is an artist who was most likely Esaias' teacher, David Vinckboons (1576-1633), who painted a number of merry companies in garden settings between 1610 and 1622. In
Vinckboons' Merry Company of 1610 (fig. 1; Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam) couples dine, dance and lounge in a landscape dominated by a castle of love. The beauty of spring is on full display but indecorous behaviour is suggested by the playing cards strewn on the ground and the bones that have fallen from the table, both of which indicate not the beauty of fertility but the approaching decay of the over-ripe. The young man sitting in the foreground right leaning into the lap of a young woman seated behind him recalls the prodigal son as he appears in Bol's drawings.
The couple dancing to the left of the table likewise appears in a closely related drawing by Vinckboons, The prodigal son squandering his inheritance (British Museum, London) of 1608 in which the penniless prodigal is being thrown out of a tavern. This sheet is part of a series of four drawings inspired by Bol's depictions of the subject widely known through prints by Claes Jansz Visscher.
Esaias painted merry company scenes from 1614 to 1624, most of them in Haarlem where he moved with his mother in 1609 after an apprenticeship in Amsterdam with either Vinckboons or the landscape painter Gillis van Coninxloo. In 1618 he moved to The Hague where he collaborated with Bartolomeus van Bassen, painting merry companies into his fanciful palace views. Around thirty collaborative works by Esaias and van Bassen are known and they were highly prized by their contemporaries, selling for between 100 and 160 guilders. Despite the overwhelming popularity of the merry company-over 1500 were produced between 1615 and 1645-by the 1650s dealers who seem to have specialized in the genre had comparatively few in stock (Kolfin 2005, pp. 174-77).
For an excellent study of the merry company genre, its market and its audience see E. Kolfin, The young gentry at play. Northern Netherlandish scenes of merry companies 1610-1645, 2005.