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A Festive Painting by Willem Buytewech

The Mauritshuis has acquired an extraordinary painting by Willem Buytewech with the support of the BankGiro Lottery. This early seventeenth-century artist is known above all for his extensive oeuvre of prints and drawings. His paintings are
extremely rare – only six have survived. They present colourful scenes of young people enjoying themselves as they sit eating and drinking at tables in interiors or in the open air.

The new acquisition – Merry Company on a Terrace – is a highlight of this small group of paintings. It would not be an exaggeration to call it a key work in the development of early Dutch genre painting. Painted with astonishing virtuosity and assurance, the comic figures are worked out in great detail.

Young couples gather around a long table on a garden terrace, laid for a meal. The elegant young people are treated with considerable irony: they are dressed in the very latest fashions and are apparently rather pleased with themselves. Among the delicacies on the table is a peacock pie and costly tableware on the right side. Musical instruments lie on the ground and in the centre is a wine cooler with pitchers and bowls. A dog sniffs at these objects in the foreground. Large columns with draperies at left and right give the setting the air of a palace. A church can be seen among the trees in the background, but the vegetation growing on the tower suggests that it is in a dilapidated state. The contrast with the extravagant luxury in the foreground is so great that it seems Buytewech placed a moralising footnote here.

Aanwinst Mauritshuis Willem Buytewech
Willem Buytewech Merry Company on a Terrace, c. 1616–1617 Canvas, 71 × 94 cm Mauritshuis (acquired with the support of the BankGiro Lottery, 2018).

'Geestige Willem'

In his own time Buytewech was called ‘Geestige Willem’ (Witty Willem), a nickname that alludes both to the witty inventiveness of his compositions and to his humour. His talent for characterising figures is unrivalled. The young people in their colourful outfits are magnificently painted here, particularly the group of five standing to the right of the table and the couple seated on the left. It seems that a game is being played within the group of five – three men and two women in very low-cut dresses – and it is not entirely clear who belongs to whom. For instance, whose hand is it around the waist of the woman second from the right? She appears to belong with the moustachioed man in red, but she may also be secretly flirting with the young man in the middle. The couple on the left in this group loosely hold hands, but the young man with the spiky hair looks away and his lady friend appears to be extremely enamoured with the man in the middle. A monkey plays a key role in the vignette of the seated couple. The animal can be a symbol of lust and as an attribute of Taste can also allude to the Five Senses. Here the monkey tries to lift the woman’s skirts, but the man stops it. This gives him the opportunity to play footsie with his sweetheart, but rather on the sly – so it seems – as he does not look at her. In the meantime, she casually sticks a hairpin into her beautiful coiffure while she looks at the viewer, involving us in the game. These kinds of flirtatious games are part of the youthful entertainment that Buytewech made his subject.

Detail of Willem Buytewech, Merry Company on a Terrace.

Detail van Willem Buytewech, Merry Company on a Terrace.

Willem Buytewech Franse edelman, Ets, 19,4 × 7,3 cm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Willem Buytewech, French Nobleman, Ets, 19,4 × 7,3 cm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Tall Hats

Willem Buytewech (1591/92–1624) belonged to a generation of renowned artists who worked in Haarlem at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Born in Rotterdam, in 1612 he became a member of the Guild of St Luke in Haarlem, a town that probably attracted him because of its lively artistic climate. Buytewech was primarily a draughtsman and printmaker – at present we know of around 125 drawings and thirty-two etchings by him. The study of his painted oeuvre has proven difficult, because none of his paintings are signed or dated. In 1916, Wilhelm Martin, the director of the Mauritshuis at the time, succeeded in attributing a number of paintings to Buytewech convincingly for the first time. Ten years later Merry Company on a Terrace was added to his small body of work. The figures in Buytewech’s paintings provide important clues for attribution. They appear in drawings and prints that often were signed. Various figures in Merry Company on a Terrace, for example, strongly resemble figures in his drawings and in a series of etchings showing members of the aristocracy from different countries. His swift manner of painting calls to mind Frans Hals’s work, which Buytewech could have studied in Haarlem. He borrowed the man with his hand on his hip (right foreground), for instance, from Hals’s earliest militia group portrait of 1616, the Banquet of the Officers of St George’s Civic Guard. Details of the clothes provide clues for the date of the painting. The tall hats in this painting, for example, were the height of fashion between 1615 and 1620. The hats confirm the proposed dating of the acquisition to 1616–1617. Buytewech probably painted this work in Haarlem, before he returned to Rotterdam in 1617.

Merry Companies

Dozens of new themes appeared in Dutch painting shortly after 1600. Artists began to look more closely at their own surroundings and paint scenes taken from everyday life. One of the new genre subjects was the merry company: young people partying, often outdoors, whose opulent clothes identify them as members of the upper class. They are shown eating, drinking, smoking, playing cards or trictrac, making music and flirting with one another; a jeunesse dorée with nothing to do but enjoy themselves. The popularity of scenes like these appears to be part of a general interest in youthful pleasure; an interest also expressed in the countless beautifully illustrated books of love songs that were then in great demand at that time. Thanks in part to the peace occasioned by the Twelve Years’ Truce, prosperity increased, making a leisure culture available to an increasing number of people. Wealthy young people became a popular subject in paintings and prints. As a theme, the merry companies grew out of sixteenth-century pictorial traditions, such as the popular scenes, particularly in prints, of gardens of love or portrayals of the Prodigal Son engaged in squandering his inheritance. The subject of the merry company was introduced into Dutch painting around 1610 by David Vinckboons, an Amsterdam artist who like many at that time had his roots in the Southern Netherlands. Around 1615, the subject gained popularity in Haarlem through the work of Esaias van de Velde, Willem Buytewech and Dirck Hals (Frans’s younger brother). These scenes were highly significant to the development of Dutch seventeenth-century genre painting. Notably all these early artists worked out their subjects in prints and drawings before they picked up a brush. They consistently paid a great deal of attention to recording dress accurately.

Key Work for the Mauritshuis

The acquisition is an important addition to the Mauritshuis’s collection. This painting will be included in Room 8 of the permanent collection, which shows how a variety of new subjects appeared in Dutch painting at the beginning of the seventeenth century. There are early still lifes there, including the phenomenal flower paintings by Ambrosius Bosschaert and Roelant Savery, and important early landscapes like Hendrick Avercamp’s Ice Scene. There are also history paintings and portraits, but until now there has not been a representative genre work. Buytewech’s Merry Company on a Terrace will play a crucial role in this room. In this festive painting, the Mauritshuis has acquired the best of what early Dutch genre painting has to offer.

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