The present painting is an autograph second version of a composition which Adriaen van de Venne first used in a series of five animal allegories formerly in Schloss Gottorf in Schleswig. The first version of the Dancing monkeys has not come down to us and is only known from a reproductive print by the German engraver Christian Rothgiesser (d. 1659), who worked for the court in Schleswig (see H. Borzikowsky, Von allerhand Figuren und Abbildungen. Kupferstecher des 17. Jahrhunderts im Umkreis des Gottorfer Hofes, Husum, 1981, p. 43 and illustrated; p. 204, nos. 173-5, illustrated, pp. 203-4). Rothgiesser also engraved two of the other panels from the original series.
In fact, from the Gottorf series mentioned above, only the panel with two skating owls - carrying the inscription 'How well we go together' (Hoe dienen wy by een!) - is known today. However, the complete series is described in an inventory of Schloss Gottorf from 1710 (without mentioning the name of the artist): a dance of a dog and cat; two owls on skates; two frogs in suits of armour and one in ladies' dress; two pigs dressed as peasants; two monkeys dancing and one making music. An inventory of 1743 notes that the paintings carried Dutch inscriptions. In 1759, the painting with the skating owls (see fig. 1) entered the Danish Royal collection and presently is in the Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen (inv. no. KMS 1897). Three other paintings were auctioned in 1824 and the fifth one was already missing as early as 1750.
After thorough technical examination of both the panel with the skating owls and the present lot, it could be concluded that the two paintings did not form part of the same series. A plausible explanation for this would be that Adriaen van de Venne painted a second set of animal allegories - a repetition of the Gottorf series - to which the present painting belonged. Such repetitions of existing compositions were common practice in his workshop. The painting technique is fully congruent with other polychrome paintings by Van de Venne, especially with Wealth leads to Luxury in a private collection (see L.J. Bol, Adriaen van de Venne. Painter and Draughtsman, Doornspijk, 1989, p. 87, fig. 77). Also, the style of the underdrawing and the fact that the painting is not a mere copy, but shows subtle changes, point to the artist himself.
The infrared photographs of the present composition show that the final painting deviates in several details from the underdrawing, especially in the clothing. Apparently the artist carried out a number of slight corrections during the painting stage. A number of these changes coincide with details in which the painting differs from the print by Rothgiesser after the painting from the Gottorf series. One example is illustrated (see fig. 2) where the sleeves of the female monkey are larger in the underdrawing, as in the print, but were reduced in size during the painting stage. The artist carried out these changes probably in order to improve the composition by making the figures less bulky and thus introducing more space.
In paintings from Van de Venne's The Hague period, such as the present composition, banderoles with inscriptions are frequently included. They are mostly proverbs or puns that can be related to the depicted scenes. Text and image are combined in a similar fashion in the emblem books of his time. Adriaen van de Venne was befriended with the most popular Dutch author of emblematic literature, Jacob Cats, and illustrated almost all of his books. The painter had literary aspirations himself. His most important book, Tafereel van de Belacchende Werelt ('Picture of the Ridiculous World'), was published in The Hague in 1635 and contains many proverbs and puns that also appear in the banderoles of his paintings.
The inscription in the scroll hovering over the heads of the dancing monkeys in the present painting gives a meaning to this scene. The text 'How roguish, crazy and merry!' (Hoe oolijck geck en vrolijck!) stresses the foolishness of these animals, which are traditionally associated with folly. Adriaen van de Venne's forementioned book Tafereel van de Belacchende Werelt contains an illustration which combines all animals from the Gottorf series, including the two monkeys. In the accompanying text it is stated that, although the pair is richly clad, they remain monkeys after all:
Monkeys shall remain monkeys,
Although they do many things;
What can velvet and satin accomplish,
As an animal must be an animal?
This recalls a saying still being used today: 'an ape's an ape, a varlet's a varlet, though they be clad in silk or scarlet'. The subject of our painting fits well into the rich pictorial tradition of monkeys dressed as humans who are imitating and thereby ridiculing human behaviour.
We are grateful to Mr. Edwin Buijsen of the RKD, The Hague for confirming the attribution to Adriaen van der Venne and for his assistance in cataloguing this lot. On stylistic grounds Mr Buijsen proposes a date in the 1630s and will include this work in his forthcoming dissertation on the paintings of Adriaen van de Venne.