Monkeys carried a lot of symbolic weight in the sixteenth and seventeenth-century Netherlands. By the time Teniers painted Guardroom with monkeys around 1633, monkeys had appeared in images as diverse as playing cards, Dürer prints and paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Indeed, by the early 1630s there had been close to a century of monkey images circulated in the Netherlands and their long association with sinfulness and folly would not have been lost on Teniers' viewers, the educated humanist set of which he was a member.
In many ways, Guardroom with monkeys is like any other contemporary depiction of soldiers at rest. They gather around tables playing games, drinking, and smoking well into the night as indicated by the moon in the circular window above the door. Their armor has been removed, their pikes have been stowed, and the flag of their company has been rolled up and stored on the far wall. An element of drama, however, has been introduced by the appearance of nightwatchmen at the door presenting a startled cat to the captain of the monkey company. The cat wears respectable burgerlijk dress in notable contrast to the foppery of the soldiers and stands between two guards with his tail between his legs. The civilian dress of the cat, together with details such as the funnel on the head of the captain's deputy and the pot worn as a hat by the seated soldier in the foreground at the left, raise questions about the legitimacy of their authority.
The primary role of the monkey in visual and literary sources of the sixteenth century was to represent the irrational and foolish side of man's nature, but the underlying suspicions about these animals reveal considerably darker connotations. Indeed, Luther believed that they were actually devils and Calvin described them as apostles of the Antichrist. Both the Devil and the Antichrist were referred to as 'apes' (or imitators) of God, diametrically opposed to everything beautiful and good (see M. Sullivan, The Art Bulletin, vol. 63, 1981, pp. 116-8). Dürer's engraving, Madonna with a monkey, suggests this dichotomy by contrasting the Virgin, who sits in an idyllic landscape holding the Christ Child on her knee, with a chained monkey at her feet. Pieter Bruegel the Elder's Two Monkeys (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin) of 1562 has been interpreted as a depiction of two specific sins, avarice and prodigality. The two chained monkeys appear within the arched window of a building with thick stone walls overlooking a city. Scattered empty nut shells associate the monkey on the right with prodigality while the monkey on the left, who looks directly at the viewer, appears to hold something to his chest and is, thus, associated with avarice.
The monkey was also associated with the fool in sixteenth-century literary and visual culture and it is most likely the lighter side of this symbolism to which Teniers refers in Guardroom with monkeys. In Sebastian Brandt's Ship of fools, for example, Dame Folly leads monkeys and fools by a rope and Brandt associates 'apes or fools in high places' with the pride of the powerful in his chapter on the presumption of the proud. A chained monkey wearing fool's garb and looking the wrong way through a telescope appears in Teniers' Vanitas allegory (see M. Klinge, op cit., p. 32) painted around the same time.
Teniers' monkey subjects fall roughly into two periods, the early 1630s in Antwerp and the 1660s during his tenure as court painter to Archduke Leopold Wilhelm in Brussels. It is interesting to note that the majority of Teniers' monkeys from the Antwerp period appear as soldiers. In his Festival of monkeys, also painted in 1633 (Klinge, op cit., pp. 34-5), soldier-monkeys celebrate in tents set up in a lush landscape. They sit around the table enjoying the abundant food and wine beneath the image of an owl wearing spectacles, which refers to the saying 'what good are spectacles and candle when the owl does not want to see'.
Both the Festival of monkeys and Guardroom with monkeys embody Brandt's commentary on 'fools in high places' and could well represent Teniers' own criticism of the bloated military ranks in the southern Netherlands at the time. Despite the myth of the placidity of the Golden Age, soldiers played an important role in the society of the northern and southern Netherlands. Indeed, they were at war with one another for most of the first half of the century and were occupied with English and French aggression for the second half.
Teniers clearly associated himself with his monkey paintings around this time as he included both Festival of monkeys and Guardroom with monkeys in his self portrait of 1635, known as The Artist in his studio (fig. 1; Klinge, op cit., p. 50). He appears at the lower left in front of his easel, paint brush and palette in hand. In an unusual combination of genres, his studio is depicted as a kind of picture gallery with young connoisseurs considering his work. These two paintings, together with several other early works, are singled out for special consideration by their placement on a chair in the foreground right. Teniers had joined the St. Luke's Guild in 1632 and is known to have painted small religious scenes on commission for a dealer who supplied the Spanish market around this time. He was known in the domestic market of the 1630s, however, for his genre paintings and works such as Guardroom with monkeys would have been intended for sale within the Netherlands.