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Louvre: David Teniers (the Younger) – The Works of Mercy

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David Teniers (the Younger) - The Works of Mercy

Richelieu wing – 2nd floor – Flanders, 17th century – Room 22

The Louvre Museum has quite a number of paintings by David Téniers, a painter so spiritually realistic. It is useless to describe them, for they consist of the same elements, varied with the most ingenious art, and paraphrase on different modes the uniform theme of the familiar life of the peasants. Sometimes, however, he tried some subject of history or of holiness; but he allowed himself the anachronism of the costume with the same liberty as Paul Veronese, and he was a man to put guns at the siege of Troy and a pipe between the lips of Achilles with light feet. Thus, the Prodigal Child, at table among the courtesans, has a feathered hat, a refined coat, and a gentleman’s sword; the courtesans, peaceful Flemish, are dressed in the fashion of the seventeenth century and, in the background, we see a steeple surmounted by his cock, which is nothing particularly biblical; but the parable of the Prodigal Son is of all ages. His Works of Mercy, which we give here, contain in a single picture all the meritorious deeds which may inspire Christian charity, treated with the same piquant ingenuity and with the same freedom of interpretation.

This painting rightly passes for one of the most complete masterpieces of Teniers; the execution is extremely original, and the characters all possess that peculiar, amusing and familiar bearing, which makes us love them, in spite of their peasant vulgarity; but we all know that this composition, with its obvious moral bearing, is not the affair of Teniers and that he feels much less at ease than in his little world of smokers and drinkers.

Theophile Gautier, a great admirer of Teniers, wrote on this painter a very pretty page, that we would not like to quote:

“David Teniers, said the Younger, has made himself a little world where he reigns supreme. In vain Louis XIV said with a disdainful pout: “Pull these magots in front of me,” the museums, the galleries, the cabinets of amateurs have not fought less the magots of the good Flemish. We have found an intimate charm to those cabarets where peasants smoke beside a pot of beer, where maids, devoured by rustic gallants, pass carrying dishes or flasks, where in a warm shadow, stitched with glittering glitter, sparkle well-scoured cookware; to these cabinets of alchemists, cluttered with matrass, siphons, retorts, serpentines, and all the cabalistic stuff, ordinary furniture of the blowers; to those temptations of Saint Anthony, to those fair-houses which dance in the open air, to those heron hunts, and to all those subjects of the familiar life that Teniers excels at rendering. Nobody better painted the aspect of Flanders, with its damp gray sky, its fresh greenery, its brick houses with stepped gables whose roofs offer nests to storks, its canals full of brown water, his boisterous guarding corps, his hospitable cabarets, his stocky peasants, with his mocking countenance, and his plump little women.

“Through this rusticity, Teniers sometimes makes one see the turrets of a seigniorial dwelling, for if he painted the countryside, it was from the window of a castle. David Teniers is not, as we imagine too often, an artist whose works owe their main merit to the finite. Nobody worked in a freer, lighter, faster way. Most of his little pictures, which are fought over for gold, cost him only one afternoon. His painting, blond, transparent, maintained in red scales or tender gray, proceeds in large localities that model, in two or three shots, pungent touches, spiritual awakenings. A point of light, a halftone, a reflection, and here is a pot of sandstone, a bottle of glass, which seem finished with excessive care. The right effect is obtained at very little cost. It is the same for the figures, accused by flats with a speed and a certainty of great artist. Rubens, Van Dyck and Teniers were, in their lifetime, the most famous names in Flanders, and posterity has preserved and confirmed their titles. The ideal of Teniers was not very high probably, but he realized it completely.”

The Works of Mercy come from the old royal collection. In 1735, a painting of this name was found, bought for 860 florins from the sale of M. Schuylemberg at The Hague, but it is not known whether it is the Louvre. This one is painted on copper.

Height: 0.56 – Width: 0.78 – Figures: 0.25.

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