Ripe with symbolism, moralising intent and a playful sense of humour, this picture belongs to the small group of monkey scenes that Teniers painted early in his long and prolific career. Signed and dated 1633, when he was 23 years old, it was made the year after which Teniers was admitted to the Guild of Saint Luke in Antwerp. He saw fit to include the picture together with another monkey scene (which was sold at Christie’s, New York, 19 April 2007, lot 23) in his wonderful self-portrait, The Artist in his Studio, dated 1635 (fig. 1; Private collection). Teniers shows himself on the left at his easel, and the edge of this present lot can be seen on the floor to the right, propped up against a work showing The Holy Spirit before Saint Teresa, which relates to Rubens’s composition of circa 1614-15 in the Boijmans van Beuningen Museum, Rotterdam. Its prominent placement indicates the importance that Teniers himself attached to it, giving it visibility in a work that served to showcase his talent and interest in a range of genres at a moment when his career began to blossom.
Klinge (op. cit., p. 34) suggests the picture may be a parody of soldierly behaviour, with a warning to guard against the excesses of drinking and eating. This message is made unmistakeably clear by the drawing (or print) above the entrance to the tent: the motto reads ‘Bon Vin Day’, which is being celebrated with gusto all around, while above is a tethered owl, with a pair of spectacles and a candle. This is a clear allusion to the proverb ‘Wat beaten kaers of bril, als den uijl niet sien en wil’ (‘What good are spectacles and a candle, when the owl does not want to see’), which guards against overrating sensual pleasures. Klinge further suggests that the gallows in the distance may relate to the deadly sins of pride and gluttony, as many drunkards ended their days on the gallows.