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This is a portrait (select link to see a large image in a new window) of an unnamed man, called in the title only ‘a merry drinker’. The background gives us no clue as to his location, filled in with flat wash of gold paint. He fills most of the canvas, from fore- to middle-ground, and seems to welcome the viewer, with a wave of greeting and a cheerful facial expression. The artist has made use of shadow only slightly, to emphasize the contours of the man’s face. The background recedes through his use of shading over a neutral ground that blends with the colors of the drinker’s clothing.
The clothing – lace collar and cuffs, full sleeves with in-woven, or embroidered detail, gold medal, a belt worked with artistic embellishment, jacket with pleated (and, perhaps, gold-thread) adornment, a quite-large hat that could be made of black velvet – suggest a man of standing and some wealth. The Honour and Fleming World History of Art* identifies his medal as one of Prince Maurice of Orange, which “associates the drinker with the anti-burgher faction, which came near to converting the young republic into a monarchy,” (HF 591) so the artist would seem to have sympathy with this movement, as he has portrayed this man in such a pleasant light.
Giving us the drinker as an anonymous ‘Everyman’ and placing him in a position of equality with the viewer with an attitude of frank goodwill, the artist would seem to communicate that the monarchy has a greater potential to support life, or to have a positive impact on ‘Everyman’ than the rise of the merchant class. This portrait is of a man grounded in this world (through earthy, ochre color, and through solid positioning right at the ‘proscenium’ of the frame), appreciative of the gifts of fine materials and wine, present to his fellow man. An artist with antipathy toward the monarchy would surely have placed him aloof and distant, with a close, or haughty expression, and in less earthy colors.
Though the subject of this portrait is not named, we sense his individuality and humanity, because of the artist’s attention to the details of his face: the sheen of perspiration on his forehead, the every-which-way curls of his hair, beard and moustache, the pleasant smile, the realism of a slight asymmetry in his eyes, and – most important of all – the life-like twinkle in his eyes. The text suggests that this “animating sparkle” comes from Hals’ signature style of free and spontaneous brushwork, with flicked-in highlights that bring even somber colors to life. (HF 592)
Hals’ merry drinker is not sitting for a formal portrait, but seems to have been surprised in an unselfconscious moment of simple enjoyment of life. His glass of wine, or beer, is balanced strangely on his fingers, but he seems completely at ease and relaxed. The contents of his glass blend in with the palette of his clothing almost completely, suggesting that this drinking is an everyday aspect of the fabric of his life, rather than a special toast, or other formal occasion. Since the artist draws attention to the alcoholic beverage by the title of this piece, and in light of the other ways he places this ‘man of the monarchy’ on a level with the viewer (again, ‘Everyman’), he might well be communicating the idea that drink can be a leveler, or allow for bonding between various classes of people.
I do not know about Hals’ views on Christianity, but this would seem to me to be consonant with a temperate appreciation for alcohol as a sign of the Holy Spirit’s influence upon unity and conviviality within the Body of Christ – as a proportioner, Who equalizes and unifies without the need of destroying either individuality, or hierarchical relationships within the Church.
My initial response to this painting was simply attraction to this drinker’s merry joie de vivre, but I think the artist wanted to communicate a great deal more about the possibilities for harmony among men, made possible by acceptance of natural distinctions between them. Later developments in the movement from monarchs to merchants, from a continuous fabric of persons from king to peasant, to a stark division between capital-rich owners and industry-enslaved workers, make his observations all the more fascinating to me. Perhaps he over-idealized the possibilities for human dignity under monarchical rule, but perhaps republicans over-estimated the degree of human freedom that would accrue to ‘Everyman’ as the ceiling of authority was democratically lowered.
A World History of Art, Hugh Honour & John Fleming, Seventh Edition, Laurence King Publishing Ltd., 2005
In “Stour Valley and Dedham Church” (select link for large image in new window) Constable has painted the Vale of Dedham – a familiar and beloved area of his native England. In the foreground, men shovel compost from a dung heap. The landscape behind them is groomed – tidy and clean, in comparison with the random, blowsy growth on and around the dung. That the manure pile is tucked away from view – actually behind a separating hedge – is emphasized by the artist’s use of light and shadow. The untamed fecundity of the sprawling vine (front, center) that emerges from the manure is a contrast to the expanse of land tamed by man, which fills the middle ground.
Seen in the distance is the church which, though quite small and slightly off-center, is the center of organization for the village, the surrounding fields, and even the workers, whose presence in the center-foreground points directly ‘upward’ in a straight line to it. The skyscape that fills the upper third of the canvas emphasizes the extent of man’s domains even as it seems to flatten and limit them – perhaps a suggestion that, for all his mastery of the things of earth, man is still dwarfed by Creation and its Creator.
The tower of the church just barely ‘touches’ the sky at the center of the far horizon, and draws attention more to itself as a center of human activity than as a meeting place for man with the Divine. This reflects, perhaps, a bit of the English, Protestant ‘humility’ by which the form of ‘church’ was emptied of its sacramental power. Since both the dung area and the cleaner field-and-stream area are painted evenly – similar colors, balance in space and lighting, connected organically – the artist seems to sense the beauty of both areas, and to appreciate the dependence of the more ‘noble,’ or ‘glorious’ landscape on the humility of hummus, and human labor. The workers, though handling the lowest of elements, are dignified by their central, forward position, by the link to the church, whose Sabbath days crown their labors with rest, and by the beauty of the lands to which they make a vital contribution.
The heavens look on the whole scene with a calm detachment that seems to place all that lies beneath into proper subordination and peaceful proportion. Constable has used diminishing size, faded color and decreasing detail to create the perspective of great distance. The size and sharp detail of the wagon in the foreground, if compared to the small, less sharp image of the church in the middle-ground, might suggest, in addition to spatial proportion, the proportion of six days labor to one of Sabbath worship and rest. This is certainly God’s created world, but man deserves credit for working it with the sweat of his brow.
The flat gray of the sky, reflecting the green fields below, seems continuous with the landscape, rather than an overarching and distant, celestial heaven. The artist is clearly proud and fond of this view, and the men whose nobility is represented in it. His frank approval seems to echo God’s own pronouncement that what He sees here is good!