This popular composition depicts a theme that has traditionally been thought to be the invention of Marten van Cleve; those versions of the composition by Pieter Brueghel II have consequently been regarded as copies after a lost prototype by the former. More recently, however, Klaus Ertz, in his monograph on Pieter II (Lingen, 2000, pp. 523-33), has suggested that the present compositional type is instead an invention by Brueghel that is only loosely based upon concepts of Van Cleve's (as displayed, for example, in an engraving after the latter by Balthasar van den Bos; ibid., p. 525, fig. 393). On the basis of photographs, he regards a possible contender for the Brueghel prototype as being a painting in the Gemäldegalerie, Dresden, hypothesizing that as a work by Pieter II there need be no reason to doubt - as is currently the case - the signature, which if correct, is of a form (the initials 'P.B.') that suggests a date in the 1580s.
Ertz lists three examples as being fully attributable to Pieter II (that in a private collection, Madrid, his no. 576; the signed work in the Museo Stibbert, Florence, datable to circa 1620, his no. 577; and that sold, Sotheby's, London, 4 April 1984, lot 44, his no. 578), as well as a further five works recorded in earlier documents or known only from photographs, including that in the Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels (his no. 581) and that in Dresden, mentioned above (his no. 582). Noting, however, the early date of some of the Van Cleve attributions (including one possibly in the 1642 inventory of Herman de Neyt, which lists amongst five works by Marten van Cleve 'eenen coninck drinckte'), he suggests that, amongst the known versions of the composition, a few may have been painted by one of his followers after Brueghel's design. These he defines by their inclusion of a group of spilled vegetables in the lower right corner, as also in the present work: a motif that he notes is found nowhere in Brueghel's oeuvre, but that does appear in that of Van Cleve, for example in his various depictions of The visit to the farm (e.g. ibid.., p. 480, figs. 362-3).
Whichever artist is responsible for the original, elements of the concept certainly still derive from Van Cleve - a particularly fundamental aspect being in the understanding of the relationship between the figures dressed as King Carnival and Dame Lent. These appear elsewhere in Pieter II's oeuvre, always following the usage of his father who represented them as adversaries, engaging in a jousting tournament against each other. It seems, by contrast, to have been Van Cleve who introduced the motif of the two figures entering the interior hand-in-hand, dancing to the music of a bagpiper (for example in the work offered in these Rooms, 9 June 2003, lot 19). In addition, the figure of the woman cooking pancakes derives from Van Cleve - for example in The visit to the farm - whilst Ertz's view that the winter landscape in the background is a motif of Brueghel's and not Van Cleve's seems uncertain given the apparently wintry background in the Van den Bos engraving. It is, furthermore, notable that the present picture depicts a hole in the far wall of the building - an unusual feature that Ertz finds elsewhere only in two fully autograph works (his nos. 576 and 578); its inclusion in a work that also contains the Van Cleve vegetable motif may therefore suggest that there is more to the argument, and that a Van Cleve prototype may yet remain to be discovered.
The feast depicted is that of Epiphany, celebrated either on 6 January - the thirteenth day after Christmas - or on the preceding evening (Twelfth Night). After returning from church, the company would gather for a large meal, at the start of which one of those present would be chosen as king by casting lots or by serving cakes, one which included a bean, the discoverer of which being designated king (hence the alternative name for the theme in artistic depictions: The Bean King). The king would then be given a paper crown and would organise the members of the court: typically a queen, jester, cook, musician, master of ceremonies, taster and porter. The highlight of the evening was the moment the king lifted the glass to take the first sip, at which the company would shout as loudly as possible 'The king drinks!', after which the main celebrations would begin.