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Beer In Art #146: Judith Leyster’s Merry Drinkers

As tomorrow is Halloween, this week’s works of art involves the supernatural as well as beer. It’s from around 1639 and was painted by Judith Leyster, one of three significant Dutch Golden Age female artists. It’s known by various titles, The Last Drop, the Gay Cavalier and the Merry Drinkers. Whatever you call it, the original is at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The museum describes the painting:

The costume that the standing figure wears over his clothes suggests that the setting is vastenavond, the night before the beginning of Lent, when people frequently went on binges in order to prepare themselves for fasting and abstinence. This painting speculates on the consequences of such overindulgence. In their dissipated state, the gay cavalier and his companion ignore the menacing presence of the skeleton, which bears an ominous hourglass in one bony hand and a skull in the other.

But another art critic had this to say:

This candle-lit cabaret scene depicts beer drinkers engaged in a drinking competition of sorts. The use of shadow and contrasts in light is pronounced and is reminiscent of Caravaggio. Although the scene is a merry one, Death, symbolized by the skeleton, is present to encourage their excesses, marking them for an all too obvious fate. The setting is magnificently constructed and the lively treatment owes much to Frans Hals. The allegory is striking in the contrast it depicts between the carefree frolickings of the figures and the tragedy awaiting them.

So it seems not everyone agrees about what’s going on in the painting, but it seemed appropriate for Halloween because of the skeleton and the spectre of death it represents.

Leyster painted a number of portraits and genre paintings, and at least one more with beer. Below is The Merry Drinker, from 1630.

Unfortunately, she stopped painting after she married. Of course, it was the 17th century. You can read her biography at Wikipedia and at the National Museum
of Women in the Arts. And you can see more of her paintings at ArtCyclopedia, Olga’s Gallery, the Web Gallery of Art and the WikiMedia Gallery.

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