Richelieu wing – 2nd floor – Rubens – Room 21
The scene takes place in the middle of the Flemish countryside, in front of one of these inns near the village, whose bell tower can be seen there, through the trees. Halts for the rover who roamed the roads in the old days, these inns also served as a stroll destination, Sunday, to the peasants who came there to gorge on food and beer; were also celebrated village weddings around tables laid out in the open air where the big joy of the gluttony could flourish.
It is indeed a village wedding that Rubens wanted to represent; it is the primitive title of his painting, which was later called The Kermesse. This kind of painting has always solicited the Flemish artists, by its picturesque, its joviality. Many of them, such as Teniers, Van Steen and Van Ostade, have specialized in this and have earned lasting glory. Rubens has only approached this subject by chance, but under his powerful hand the vulgar episode takes on the appearance of an epic, gaiety becomes delirium, the movement of frenzy; one is seduced, seized, dragged into the crazy circle of maritornes and drinkers.
In the center, a peasant with a bright face embraces a woman thrown back on the grass; next door, a couple seems to be fighting over a pot of beer. On straw bales, mothers breast-feed their infants, and an old woman gives a young child a drink. On the left, in front of the inn, drunken guests sit around the tables; one of them, overwhelmed by drunkenness and sleep, is slumped in front of his glass, while the others gesticulate and shout. Two peasants are trying to snatch a jug of beer; another, exhilarated by the drink, reads two buxom gossips. On the right is a pond on which two ducks swim, an empty barrel also floats; on the edge, a tub that a dog is actively exploring, hoping to find reliefs. In the background, driven by two musicians on a table, a disheveled, delirious round takes place, crowded with a prodigious movement in which the bewildered eye perceives nothing but tense torsos, bouncy croups, legs raised, skirts flying.
Rubens alone was able to make a genius work with such vulgar elements. In this composition where a multitude of characters are agitated, each of them is a small wonder of observation and naturalness. All the rustic Flanders, exuberant and enjoyable, is painted masterfully, with an art which in no way yields to that of the Descent from the Cross or the Life of Marie de Medici. And in this painting, what splendor of colors! Rubens has spent all the ardor of his flamboyant palette: it is the most prodigious assemblage of vermillionated trogs, of colored flesh, of disparate costumes melting their violent hues in the frenzy of the round and also in the harmonious warmth of the landscape.
This masterpiece inspired Théophile Gautier, who must always be mentioned in art, the eloquent following page:
“The Kermesse is the very genius of Rubens, free from all allegorical or mythological constraint, and frolicking in complete freedom in Flemish joy and drunkenness. But do not be afraid that leaning against the pot where the beer is foaming, it becomes a peaceful and phlegmatic Teniers. When Rubens has fun, he has great gaiety of Titan, and his power is the same for a rush of angels or damned as for a round of drinkers. In front of the door of the cabaret, he took the staggering crowd and tied it in a huge garland that turns, like a drunken zodiac, in a crazy circle, arms wrapped around each other, hands holding hands, with an incredible variety of attitudes and twists, heavy feet beating the rhythm and raising a hot mist of dust. What life, what turbulence, what an explosion of joyous bestiality! As health dies on the red cheeks of these bouncy gossips! With what ardor do these robust boys forage for the opulent charms of these big females! Everything must go into the dance, even the old ones, and the round turns to breathlessness through cries, hoots, singing. It is ignoble and it is superb, because it is the bacchanal of the genius.”
The Kermesse belonged, in the middle of the 17th century, to the Marquis d’Hauterive. Louis XIV had seen it and admired it very much. In spite of his preferences for noble painting, which made him treat the characters of Teniers disdainfully as “magots”, the great King discerned very well the incomparable value of this painting. So when, in 1665, the sale of the Marquis d’Hauterive took place, he hastened to buy it for 3,850 livres. Since that time, The Kermesse has not left the national heritage: it is today in the great gallery of the Louvre, the span of Flemish painters.
Height: 1.49 – Width: 2.61 – Figures: 0.44.