Datable to shortly after 1670, this picture represents one of the finest compositions of Adriaen van Ostade's late maturity. 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 those two artists, and from Brouwer in particular, that Ostade first developed his themes of groups of smoking, drinking and dancing peasants in their village surroundings. Ostade's stylistic development was such that his later pictures are generally regarded as his most accomplished, and the present work is one of the grandest and most impressive in design to have come to the market from that latter period in recent years.
Following Brouwer's influence, Ostade had initially adopted a satirical, almost caricatured, manner in his painting, but from the 1640s onwards he began to endow his low-life protagonists with increasing degrees of restraint and dignity, his palette becoming richer and his detail stronger. Although such works are more prevalent from the 1640s, from relatively early in his career Ostade had painted occasional scenes of tranquil domestic comfort rather than his more usual scenes of drunken bawdy (for example the Village Alehouse with Four Figures of 1635 in the Residenzgalerie, Salzburg). In those occasional examples, the action is less important than the depiction of a psychological state, and the setting gains in significance, and in the course of the 1640s, Ostade increasingly began to explore that approach, thereby moving further away from Brouwer's influence towards a fully mature, personal style. His interiors became more spacious, 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, 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 continued to show an increasing emphasis on detail, whilst the strong local colouring of the figures stands out powerfully from the tonal twilight of the interior setting. Over the course of the 1660s, Ostade's work increasingly moved away from the rather dimly lit interiors of his middle period, spreading the brighter colouring and focus of his figures of the 1650s into his backgrounds and settings. Indeed, by the time of the present painting's execution, interiors hardly appear at all in his oeuvre, being supplanted by the sort of brightly lit exterior scene of which the present composition is so remarkable an example. It is perhaps a reflection on that quality that it was one of the compositions copied by Ostade's pupil, Cornelis Dusart, in the work offered for sale in these Rooms, London, 8 December 1995, lot 24.
We are grateful to Dr. Bernhard Schnackenburg for confirming the attribution on the basis of photographs; Dr. Schnackenburg dates the picture to shortly after 1670.