Described by Gustav Waagen (loc. cit.) as 'of the best time of the master, warm, clear and not exaggerated in tone; and delicately executed', this painting and its former pendant (for which see below) were for long regarded as two of the finest examples of Adriaen van Ostade's oeuvre. The pendant is dated 1661, placing the pair within the period generally understood to represent the zenith of Ostade's career, at a time when his work combines the mature development of style and subject matter with the vivacity and charm of which he was at his best possessed. In the present painting, as intimated by Waagen, this is reflected in the sympathy of interpretation, subtlety of palette and fineness of detail for which Ostade is so admired.
Ostade was one of the foremost genre painters of seventeenth-century Holland, recorded as having started his career as a pupil of Frans Hals in Haarlem, concurrently with Adriaen Brouwer. It was from these two artists, and from Brouwer in particular, that Van Ostade first developed his themes of parties of smoking, drinking and dancing peasants in their village surroundings. He initially adopted a satirical, almost caricatured, manner, but from the 1640s onwards began to endow his low-life protagonists with increasing degrees of restraint and dignity, his palette becoming richer and his chiaroscuro stronger.
Although such works are more prevalent from the 1640s, from relatively early in his career Van Ostade had painted scenes of tranquil domestic comfort (for example the Village Alehouse with Four Figures of 1635 in the Residenzgalerie, Salzburg). In them, the action is less important than the depiction of a psychological state, and the setting gains in significance. In the course of the 1640s, however, Ostade increasingly began to explore that approach to the theme, thereby moving further away from Brouwer's influence towards a fully mature, personal style. His interiors became more spacious, flat-ceilinged and better furnished, whilst the figures and their costumes, as well as the furnishings and utensils attendant on peasant life, are shown in more detail, for example the Three Peasants at an Inn of 1647 (London, Dulwich Picture Gallery).
Through the 1650s and by the date of the present work, scenes of excessive drinking and gambling became the exception rather than the rule. Ostade's peasants are mostly shown relishing the small pleasures permitted by their modest existence. This shift is accompanied by a change in the implicit meaning of the pictures: thus in place of, or alongside, the traditional satire on human frailty, the simplicity of peasant life is held up as a model or even idealized. In addition, his interiors continue to show an increasing emphasis on detail, whilst, as in the present work, the strong local colouring of the figures stands out powerfully from the tonal twilight of the interior setting.
As mentioned above, the pendant, which depicts A man and a woman drinking at a table, is dated 1661. In some records, for example Hofstede de Groot (loc. cit.), the present painting is described as similarly dated, although no evidence of that survives today. It is interesting, however, that the first mention of any date is in the catalogue of the Solirène sale (which erroneously read that of the pendant as 1660), in which no mention was made of a date on the present work. It is entirely possible therefore (and, indeed, plausible), that originally only the pendant was dated, whereas that on the present picture was added at a later date, an addition that has been removed with subsequent cleaning.
The picture was separated from its pendant at some point after their acquisition from the Ashburton collection and the sale of the present work to von Swabach. The pendant remained in the possession of the descendants of Asher Wertheimer - one of the consortium who acquired the pair in 1907 - until sold, Sotheby's, London, 8 July 1987, lot 111 (with incorrect vertical measurement). Before that, the pictures shared a provenance that reflected the admiration in which they were universally held. Two collections in particular stand out from amongst those to which they have belonged: Braamcamp and Ashburton.
The eldest son of Jan Braamcamp (c. 1671-1713), who settled in Amsterdam and became a successful wine merchant, Gerrit Braamcamp joined the family business which after the death of his parents he greatly expanded. His consequent wealth enabled him to assemble a renowned art collection that by the late 1760s included some 380 works. Braamcamp's main interest was the Dutch seventeenth century, owning such works as Rembrandt's Storm on the Sea of Galilee (Boston, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum), Gabriel Metsu's Old Woman with a Book by a Window (London, National Gallery), Philips Wouwerman's Knight Vanquishing Time, Death and Monstrous Demons (Boston, Museum of Fine Arts), Gerard Ter Borch's Card Players (Los Angeles, County Museum of Art), as well as notable works by many others of the great names of the period, for example Gerrit Dou, Nicolaes Berchem, Jan van Huysum, Paulus Potter, Jan Steen and Jan van der Heyden.
In 1766 Braamcamp sold a number of lesser paintings, and six years later his mainly Italian and Dutch drawings. At the end of his life he decided to sell his entire collection but died shortly before the auction, at which Catherine II of Russia purchased a number of works, all of which were lost at sea on the way to St. Petersburg.
Alexander Baring (1774-1848), who was created Lord Ashburton in 1835, was lavish in his collection of pictures, buying both in London and abroad. They were divided between The Grange, his neo-classical mansion in Hampshire, and Bath House in London, the collection at which greatly impressed Dr. Waagen, who wrote of Ashburton that 'uniting an ardent love for the fine arts with extraordinary wealth, he expended very large sums in the gratification of this taste, and succeeded in acquiring a choice collection of Dutch and Flemish pictures from the most celebrated cabinets in Europe' (op. cit., p. 97). The collection was inherited, and apparently expanded, by the 2nd Lord Ashburton who, as a gout-ridden 59-year-old, married Louisa Stewart-Mackenzie in 1858.
On Ashburton's death in 1864 the Grange passed to his brother, but its contents, together with Bath House and all it contained, including such masterpieces as Mantegna's Adoration of the Magi and Dosso Dossi's Pan and Echo (both now at Malibu, The J.P. Getty Museum) passed to his widow, the aforementioned Louisa, Lady Ashburton, a close friend of Browning, Carlyle and other luminaries of the late Victoria era (for a biography, see V. Surtees, The Ludovisi Goddess, Wilton, 1984).
We are very grateful to Dr. Hiltraud Doll for her assistance in cataloguing this lot; Dr. Doll will include the picture in her forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the works of Adriaen van Ostade.