While its authorship has yet to be established with any certainty, the present painting reveals the hand of an especially accomplished artist whose abilities rival those of the many anonymous Caravaggesque masters whose works grace the walls of the world’s leading museums. In terms of quality, the present painting can rightly be compared with works by the Master of the Hartford Still Life, whose eponymous painting is at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford (fig. 1), and, perhaps even more similar, the Taking of Christ in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (fig. 2), which is today given to an unidentified Flemish Caravaggesque painter.
Much like the author of the Boston painting, the artist here evidently spent time in Italy, where he encountered the work of Caravaggio and his followers but blended that with recent trends north of the Alps. From Caravaggio and his northern followers like Nicolas Régnier, the artist took his striking, naturalistic light effects. The characteristic softness and vivid coloristic effects are, however, more typical of Flemish or French painting. Lyrical, crudely realistic and bordering on the melancholic, the painting is a sympathetic, psychologically penetrating ode to its humble figures and their inextricable connection to their surroundings.
At the time of the 1999 sale, Leonard J. Slatkes attributed the painting to Jacob van Oost, comparing the profile of the smoker to that of the foreground figure in van Oost’s The Calling of Saint Matthew of circa 1641 (Groeningemuseum, Bruges), and the handling of the drapery folds and still life details to those in his Adoration of the Shepherds of 1642 (St. Salvator's Cathedral, Bruges). Recent opinion, however, has raised new questions about the artist’s identity, and while an attribution to van Oost cannot be substantiated, the consummate draftsmanship, refined treatment of light and shadow and confident yet unflamboyant treatment of the drapery and still life elements reveal the hand of a master with a keen sense of observation and well-developed mimetic ability.
Such representations of figures eating and drinking were traditionally associated with lasciviousness, acting upon the popularity of comparable images by Bartolomeo Manfredi, such as his Tavern Scene with a Lute Player of circa 1621 (Los Angeles County Museum of Art), and the work of his non-Italian counterparts, like Valentin de Boulogne and Hendrick ter Brugghen. The artist here also evidently delighted in the representation of assorted textures and materials, with the basket of fruit and onions, cheese, bread, overturned fiasco and cloth tangible through their meticulous treatment and sharp illumination. The beatific light from the upper left further reveals the impression that Italian painting had on the artist's development, recalling Caravaggio’s Basket of Fruit of circa 1599 (fig. 3; Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, Milan), with the fluid execution displaying a unique and exceptional artistry. In framing the scene with theatrical curtains, the artist created a deep shadow that both extends and recedes beyond the picture plane, creating an illusion of three-dimensional space that blurs the border between representation and reality.