In a majestic palatial hall panelled with a rich range of pink, white and bluish-grey marble, an elegant company has interrupted the course of their feast upon the sudden appearance of a group of masked and costumed revellers, dancing energetically and playing music on bizarre instruments. The fanciful architecture of the palace, inventively combining Renaissance motifs, such as the grotesque reliefs and the sculpted fruit garlands, is minutely rendered and possesses the glossy finish typical of Dirck van Delen’s best works from the 1630s. Active in the city of Arnemuiden near Middelburg, Dirck van Delen specialised in these highly polished renditions of imaginary architectural scenes and, very much in the practice of the day, he joined forces with various figure painters to populate his grand interiors. His collaboration with Dirck Hals in Haarlem and with the Delft artist Anthonie Palamedesz. is documented; Dr. Walter Liedtke has proposed that the lively figures in the present panel could be the latter painter’s fine work.
This picture depicts a fairly common occurrence in Golden Age celebrations: the unexpected entry of unruly costumed guests, also called ‘maskers’ or ‘mummers’ (see M. de Winkel, ‘Mode, Mummery and Masquerade: Dressing Up in the Golden Age’, A. Tummers, ed., Celebrating in the Golden Age, Haarlem, 2012, pp. 40-8 and p. 102). The guests’ surprise and, for some, their irritation, may be seen in the wonderfully differentiated faces and expressions of the startled audience. Mummers were mostly seen at wedding parties or during Shrove Tuesday and such merry invasions were popularised in engravings of the period, by Jacques de Gheyn or Jacques Callot, for instance. The painting could also represent the first scene of a parlour piece, a popular form of interactive play performed as entertainment at celebrations or parties. The costumes worn would frequently be Venetian in fashion, reminiscent of characters from the comedia dell’arte, with their slashed breeches, long pantaloons and bright colours. Exoticism was also hugely popular, as may be witnessed in this panel, with the couple at the extreme right in Oriental garments and turbans. Similar extravagant characters may be found in Willem Duyster’s Shrove Tuesday (Berlin, Gemäldegalerie). The subtle treatment of the light, such as that from the monumental fireplace silhouetting the two flirtatious figures in the foreground, creates masterful chiaroscuro that enhances the dramatic atmosphere of the scene and the impromptu arrival of the mummers.