The work of the Flemish Baroque painter Adriaen Brouwer excels in innovation and daring. His folk scenes, often showing drunkards and smokers in pubs, in which he emphasized the emotions of the portrayed, were extremely rare in his time.
Adriaen Brouwer was born probably around 1605 in the Flemish city of Oudenaarde, my hometown. His father was employed as a designer in one of the most famous antique Flemish crafts: the carpet industry. Around 1613, the family moved to Gouda in the Netherlands and in that period Adriaen Brouwer came into contact with the art trade, becoming in Haerlem a pupil of the famous painter Frans Hals.
A few years later, when he is about 25 years old, he moves to the Flemish city of Antwerp. Antwerp is at that time the place to be for painters, for the presence of such world famous artists as Pieter Paul Rubens, Anton van Dyck and Jacob Jordaens. Brouwer becomes close friends with both Rubens and Van Dyck, which is evidenced by such facts that the painters collected his work, van Dyck painted Adriaens’ portrait, whereas Rubens bailed him out of prison and later arranged for his funeral.
Despite these contacts and the membership of the Saint Luke Guild of Antwerp (the guild of artist painters), less than 10 years after his arrival in Antwerp, Brouwer died as a poor man in 1638.
Although in 1627 the poet Pieter Nootmans named him the ‘Painter of Haerlem’, it was in Antwerp that Adriaen Brouwer had his most fertile period. Yet because of his exuberant lifestyle, he often got in trouble with the court, and more than once had to flee his creditors. A spicy anecdote tells that he was imprisoned for political reasons by the Spaniards in the citadel of Antwerp, having been accused of espionage for the Dutch Republic. According to other sources, he evaded taxes and would have accumulated such high debts that he had to serve a sentence. Eventually, he was released thanks to the intervention of no one else than his friend Rubens.
What I call the innovative character of Brouwer’s work, is reflected in the scenes that take place almost exclusively in pubs, showing dancers, card players, smokers and drinkers. These lively scenes show a sharp skill of observation and it is a pure pleasure to look at his works and to discover all the details. A remarkable feature of Brouwer’s painting is that he is one of the few painters who shows his characters expressing extreme emotions: the men and women shout, yawn, sing loudly. Emotions such as joy, pleasure, but also pain and fear, are recurrent in his oeuvre.
Adriaen Brouwer preferred to paint ordinary people: farmers, soldiers, people from the lower class. These characters appear to have no sense of embarrassment at all. In one of the paintings he portrays life as it really happened in the pubs in the 17th century, with himself as the protagonist. In The Smokers below, he keeps his eyes wide open, has a cup of beer in his right hand and lets the smoke from his pipe come out of his mouth. Few contemporary artists depict themselves like this. He is therefore considered a very modern artist, who did not pay much attention to what was then the “distinguished” standard, while his paintings contributed to the genre of “tronies”, i.e. paintings exploring different varieties of expressions.
At the end of his life, Brouwer painted some landscapes which had a great influence on the next generation of Flemish and Dutch painters.
Only 60 works have been ascribed to him, some of which are signed by him but none at all are dated. Many of his works have also been copied by other painters, a fact which regularly raises doubts about the originality of the works.