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Attrib­uted to Pieter van Laer, Dutch, 1599-c. 1642

Figures Dancing Around a Fire, c. 1635 

A lead­ing Dutch painter active in Rome from 1625 to 1637, Pieter van Laer was cel­e­brat­ed for his humor­ous depic­tions of con­tem­po­rary street life. In this spir­it­ed car­ni­val scene, masked and cos­tumed fig­ures hold torch­es and dance around a wick­er bas­ket fire at night, the flick­er­ing light of the flames vivid­ly reflect­ing off their bod­ies. Notice, too, the faint impres­sion of a rev­el­er across the blaze. 

Van Laer belonged to a large group of transalpine painters in Rome called the Bentvueghels (Birds of a Feath­er), but his own tal­ent gar­nered him a group of fol­low­ers who called them­selves the Bam­boc­cianti, derived from van Laer’s nick­name, Bam­boc­cio, or clum­sy pup­pet, a sup­posed ref­er­ence to his awk­ward appear­ance. Although his drawn body of work is not well defined and fol­low­ers often copied his draw­ings, the mas­ter­ful exe­cu­tion of this sheet sup­ports Van Laer’s authorship.

Despite the rar­i­ty of his works today, Pieter van Laer was one of the lead­ing Dutch painters in Rome in the early sev­en­teenth cen­tu­ry.1

He was famous not for a grandiose man­ner, but rather for the oppo­site: humor­ous, small-scale genre paint­ings of con­tem­po­rary street life that quick­ly became pop­u­lar with col­lec­tors in Rome and abroad. They also proved influ­en­tial on a num­ber of artists in his cir­cle, the so-called Bam­boc­cianti, after his nick­name, Bam­boc­cio, or clum­sy pup­pet” due to his sup­pos­ed­ly awk­ward phys­i­cal appear­ance.2

Many of these artists, includ­ing Van Laer, were among the first gen­er­a­tion of mem­bers of the famous asso­ci­a­tion of transalpine painters in Rome, the Bentvueghels (“Birds of a Feath­er”), whose works are notable for their orig­i­nal­i­ty.3

We can doc­u­ment Van Laer in Rome between 1625 and 1637, the greater part of his short work­ing career, and back in the Nether­lands in 1639, where he set­tled in Haar­lem. Accord­ing to his sister’s last will drawn up in 1654, Van Laer had left the coun­try again twelve years ear­li­er (1642), and had not been heard from since.4

All trace of him after that point remains lost.

Van Laer’s small drawn oeu­vre is not well defined.5

His fol­low­ers often copied his draw­ings, and a num­ber of them bear early inscrip­tions by deal­ers or col­lec­tors attribut­ing the sheet to him (often writ­ten as Bam­boots) whether or not there is a firm basis for his author­ship. This accounts to some degree for the great dis­par­i­ty of styles of draw­ings cur­rent­ly under his name. Com­pli­cat­ing mat­ters fur­ther is the story by Arnold Houbrak­en (1660 – 1719), although its verac­i­ty might be ques­tion­able, that Philips Wouw­er­man (1619– 1668) on his deathbed destroyed a large num­ber of Van Laer’s draw­ings in order to hide the fact that he had been mak­ing use of them as prepara­to­ry stud­ies for his paint­ings.6

Intrigu­ing­ly, one sur­viv­ing study of a fig­ure on blue paper with an old attri­bu­tion to Van Laer indeed recurs in a paint­ing by Wouw­er­man Fig. 13.1.7

Pieter van Laer, Two Studies of a Seated Shepherd
Fig. 13.1

Pieter van Laer, Two Stud­ies of a Seat­ed Shep­herd, c. 1630 – 37? Black and white chalk on blue paper, 186 × 262 mm. Besançon, Musée des Beaux-Arts et d’Archéologie, inv. no. d805.

As a black and white chalk fig­ure study, its style is obvi­ous­ly quite dif­fer­ent from the present work. Some­what more com­pa­ra­ble, given its focus on care­ful­ly back­lit fi gures around a fi re at night, is the large blue paper draw­ing in the Teylers Muse­um Fig. 13.2.8

Pieter van Laer, The Shepherds’ Meal
Fig. 13.2

Pieter van Laer, The Shep­herds’ Meal. Pen and brown ink, brown and gray wash, a lit­tle red chalk, height­ened with white, on blue paper, 269 × 432 mm. Haar­lem, Teylers Muse­um, inv. no. p2.

The artis­tic chal­lenge of depict­ing fig­ures around a fi re at night was no doubt appeal­ing, and the use of blue paper for such night­time fi relit scenes seems to have also occu­pied Van Laer’s slight­ly younger Dutch col­league, Jan Asseli­jn (1610 – 1652), who would have over­lapped with him in Rome in the 1630s.9

Despite the obvi­ous­ly loos­er style and small­er scale of the the present work, the brush­work is remark­ably sub­tle in express­ing the effects of the intense, flick­er­ing illu­mi­na­tion from the bon­fire and its reflec­tions on the fi gures. Van Laer clev­er­ly indi­cat­ed one fig­ure placed on the other side of the fi re with just a few touch­es of wash and dash­es of the pen. 

The exu­ber­ant exe­cu­tion of the Peck draw­ing sug­gests the work of a mas­ter rather than a fol­low­er or copy­ist. In sup­port of the attri­bu­tion to Van Laer are some small, humor­ous water­col­or draw­ings he made in a per­son­al­ized Dutch song­book (like­ly for a woman, who has yet to be iden­ti­fied) from circa 1624 that he must have made just before he left for Italy Fig. 13.3.10

Pieter van Laer, Hope Feeds the Lover
Fig. 13.3

Pieter van Laer, Hope Feeds the Lover, c. 1624. Pen and brown ink and water­col­ors on paper. Rot­ter­dam, Atlas van Stolk, inv. no. 50641-16.

Their fluid out­lines in pen, com­bined with short, dense strokes for mod­el­ing the fig­ures, and the skill­ful lay­ered brush­work can be found in the Peck draw­ing as well. The song­book illus­tra­tions remain among the very few secure­ly attrib­uted draw­ings by Van Laer since his mono­gram or sig­na­ture appears on a num­ber of them.10

Only two other draw­ings are known that bear his sig­na­ture, both show­ing a rider dis­mount­ed from his horse, one in the col­lec­tion of Uni­ver­siteit Lei­den dated 1625, and anoth­er in Ham­burg­er Kun­sthalle dated 1628, stat­ing its loca­tion as Rome Fig. 13.4.12

Pieter van Laer, Rider and Horse
Fig. 13.4

Pieter van Laer, Rider and Horse, 1628. Pen and brush in brown ink, over black chalk or char­coal, on paper, 144 × 186. Ham­burg, Ham­burg­er Kun­sthalle, inv. no. 22093.

All of these early draw­ings are more lin­ear in char­ac­ter, with strong out­lines in pen as opposed to the more tonal draw­ings thought to come later. The more refined char­ac­ter of the Ham­burg draw­ing sug­gests that it was pro­duced from life, while the ani­mat­ed style of the song­book draw­ings and the present sheet must cer­tain­ly reflect pure inven­tion. Pro­posed here is a date in the late 1620s, in the first years after Van Laer’s arrival in Rome when his style seems to have retained some of the same graph­ic sen­si­bil­i­ty of the song­book drawings. 

These masked and cos­tumed dancers hold­ing torch­es around a wick­er bas­ket fi re are clear­ly rev­el­ers dur­ing car­ni­val. As Katha­ri­na Weick-Joch point­ed out, the Bam­boc­cianti would have been famil­iar with the visu­al tra­di­tion of car­ni­val scenes from ear­li­er Nether­lan­dish art by Pieter Bruegel and his fol­low­ers made in the mid- to late six­teenth cen­tu­ry.13

Dutch artists could take advan­tage of breath­ing new life into that tra­di­tion once they had left their Protes­tant-dom­i­nat­ed home­land and arrived in Italy. Van Laer’s con­tem­po­rary Ital­ian biog­ra­ph­er, Gio­van­ni Bat­tista Passeri (1609/10 – 1679), noted his predilec­tion for such themes as ridicu­lous pranks of the maskers in car­ni­val time,” lead­ing the art his­to­ri­an Ludovi­ca Trez­zani to won­der where they had all gone.14

Indeed, if the attri­bu­tion of this newly dis­cov­ered draw­ing to Van Laer is cor­rect, it might be the only sur­viv­ing work by him that clear­ly depicts car­ni­val cel­e­bra­tions.15

Such scenes remained pop­u­lar with Van Laer’s Bam­boc­cianti fol­low­ers such as Jan Miel (c. 1599 – 1664) and Johannes Lin­gel­bach (1622 – 1674).16

End Notes

  1. For overviews of Van Laer’s life and art, see L. Trez­zani in Brig­an­ti et al. 1983, 38 – 77; Cologne & Utrecht 1991 – 92, 188 – 208; D. Levine in Turn­er 1996; P. Schat­born in Ams­ter­dam 2001, 84 – 87; and Bakker 2017.

  2. For the Bam­boc­cianti, see Brig­an­ti et al. 1983; Levine 1984; Cologne & Utrecht 1991 – 92; and Weick-Joch 2015.

  3. J. Ver­berne in Ams­ter­dam 2001, 22 – 32; and Hoogew­erff 1952.

  4. Kurtz 1958, 232.

  5. For recent assess­ments of Van Laer’s draw­ings, see A. C. Ste­land-Stief in Cologne & Utrecht 1991 – 92, 98 – 100; and P. Schat­born in Ams­ter­dam 2001, 84 – 87. The only oeu­vre cat­a­logue to date remains Janeck’s 1968 dis­ser­ta­tion, in which he only accepts one draw­ing as authen­tic (a signed sheet in the Uni­ver­siteits­bib­lio­theek Lei­den, inv. no. PK-T-AW-474; Janeck 1968, 77 – 78, no. AII1). A few other sheets have come to light in the inter­im, and oth­ers have been gen­er­al­ly accept­ed in the more recent lit­er­a­ture; see, for exam­ple, Snoep 1968 – 69; Janeck 1976, 297 – 98; Plomp 1997, 219, no. 234; Ste­fes 2011, vol. 1, 330 – 31, no. 560; and P. Schat­born in Wash­ing­ton & Paris 2016 – 17, 116 – 18, no. 37.

  6. Houbrak­en 1718 – 21, vol. 2, 75. Piet Bakker made the impor­tant point that the Haar­lem painter Fred­er­ick Vroom (c. 1600 – 1667) also owned two sketch­books and twen­ty-one loose sheets by Van Laer, though these appear to have been pri­mar­i­ly ani­mal stud­ies and would not nec­es­sar­i­ly have com­posed the greater part of Van Laer’s stu­dio leav­ings; see Bakker 2017.

  7. For this draw­ing and the relat­ed paint­ing by Wouw­er­man, see P. Schat­born in Wash­ing­ton & Paris 2016 – 17, 116 – 18, no. 37.

  8. See Plomp 1997, 219, no. 234.

  9. See, for exam­ple, Asselijn’s two equal­ly large draw­ings on blue paper, each show­ing shep­herds around a camp­fire, in the Kupfer­stich-Kabi­nett, Dres­den, inv. nos. C1517 and C1566; Ste­land 1989, nos. 54 & 55.

  10. For the song­book and its illus­tra­tions, see Snoep 1968 – 69.

  11. Six of the circa 1624 draw­ings bear a P.B. mono­gram (for Pieter Bod­dingh, an early form of his sig­na­ture), and Snoep attrib­ut­es three fur­ther unsigned draw­ings to him on the basis of style. After his return from Italy, Van Laer added one more draw­ing to the song­book, this time signed and dated, P.V. Laer 1641. See Snoep 1968 – 69.

  12. For the Lei­den draw­ing, see Bolten 1985, 154 – 55, no. 58; and for the Ham­burg draw­ing, see Ste­fes 2011, 330 – 31, no. 560. For a dis­cus­sion of both, see also P. Schat­born in Ams­ter­dam 2001, 85 – 86 (illus­trat­ing addi­tion­al­ly Van Laer’s inscrip­tion on the verso of the latter).

  13. Weick-Joch 2015, 108 – 09.

  14. L. Trez­zani in Brig­an­ti et al. 1983, 39. For Passeri’s remarks, see idem, 354 – 55 (cit­ing the 1934 edi­tion edit­ed by Jacob Hess).

  15. There is also a paint­ing in Munich with an uncer­tain attri­bu­tion to Van Laer that appears to depict com­me­dia dell’arte fi gures in a tav­ern, though this work might pos­si­bly be a car­ni­val scene; see Cologne & Utrecht 1991 – 92, 193 – 95, no. 19.4.

  16. See Kren 1979, vol. 1, 187; Levine 1984, 289 – 90; Cologne & Utrecht 1991 – 92, 226 – 28, no. 21.9; and Weick-Joch 2015, 98 – 109.