Jan Miense Molenaer was part of an artistic family from Haarlem: his brother Bartholomeus and nephew Klaes, with whom he sometimes collaborated, were also artists. In 1636 he married the genre painter Judith Leyster and the couple moved to Amsterdam that same year. Molenaer is often considered to be the point of transition between the Brueghels and the younger artist Jan Steen, also admired for his lively genre scenes.
Molenaer's earliest works are close to the paintings of Frans Hals from the 1620s, though the figures demonstrate greater substance, and his subjects from this period were most often colorful representations of genre scenes and group portraits. This trend continued into the 1630s and 1640s, when he favored a wide range of compositions often blurring the boundaries between the various subjects (genre, portraiture, history). His style varied depending on the nature of his sources: for scenes of peasant life, Molenaer adopted a subdued palette and coarse brushstrokes, while for depictions of the upper classes he utilized a more controlled and polished technique enlivened with brilliant touches of color.
Over the course of Molenaer's career, his artistic debt to Frans Hals diminished to be replaced by other sources of influence including Dirck Hals and Thomas de Keyser. From the 1640s onward he painted almost exclusively peasant genre scenes that demonstrate the influence of Adriaen van Ostade in their increasingly crowded compositions and more monochrome palette. Molenaer also changed the format of his signature, making his mark in script rather than in the block letters he used in the early part of his career. The block signature in the present work, therefore, seems to suggest that it was painted during the artist's earlier years, though stylistically the painting appears to fall within the artist's later oeuvre.
In the present painting, Molenaer depicts a village kermesse, with townsfolk gathered in a square to engage in festive and raucous behavior. At left, a group of elderly women gossip and cook beneath a canopy, with pigs rooting for scraps nearby. In the center, a young boy balances on a rolling barrel, while a man attempts to engage his apparently reluctant companion in the game at right: a group appears to be playing a game called la main chaude, or 'hot hands', in which each player would slap the other's outstretched hands as hard as possible until one gave in. The mood is lively and energetic, representing a typically humorous interpretation of peasant life.
We are grateful to Dr. Dennis P. Weller, Chief Curator and Curator of Northern European Art at the North Carolina Museum of Art, for confirming the attribution to Molenaer, and for suggesting that the landscape elements might possibly be the work of Jan Miense's nephew Klaes. Dr. Weller suggests dating it to the second half of the 1650s (written correspondence, 31 July 2006).