In the painting of the Prodigal Son by David Teniers the Younger, lately purchased through the Dunwoody Fund, the Institute has had the good fortune to acquire a brilliant and spirited work of the artist’s best period. The picture was painted about 1640 while Teniers was still living in Antwerp, and thus antedates the Louvre painting of the same subject by three or four years. Both pictures are similar in arrangement and detail, but the Louvre painting is an exterior scene whereas the Institute’s is an interior. A third picture of the Prodigal Son, this time as a swineherd, is in the Dulwich Gallery, leading to the belief that Teniers may have produced—or contemplated producing—a Prodigal Son series. The subject was still, at this period, a fruitful one for artists, and it is interesting to observe the vivacity with which a threadbare theme has been treated here.The Institute’s painting depicts the Prodigal Son at table with two courtesans in an inn. It is a lively scene, full of amusing detail, played out in a room that is bathed in a clear, cool light from a high window on the left. Below and beyond the window is a lofty bed, completely enclosed by green velvet hangings. On the right, through an open doorway, an irate woman can be seen clouting a boy thief while a man flings water on him from a window above. The center of the picture is occupied by the Prodigal Son and his two friends as a small table. Behind them are two musicians and, to the right and left, a serving woman and a boy pouring wine. In the foreground to the left is a draped table with a charming still life of loaves, wine jug, and glasses, and to the right a chair on which the Prodigal’s red velvet cloak, plumed cavalier’s hat, and sword have been thrown. Peeping from beneath the coat is a tired-looking fur neckpiece. At the lower left is a handsome copper wine cooler containing two bottles of wine. Nearby, an engaging little monkey clad in a striped coat of yellow, red, and green and wearing a ball and chain, munches mournfully at an apple. In the doorway a frisky dog wags his tail in anticipation of scraps to come.Everyone but the principals—and the monkey—appears to be having a very good time. The pot boy strikes an attitude as he pours a glass of wine; the fiddler and the flutist leer happily at their patrons; the serving maid tosses out a merry quip as she whisks away a covered pewter serving dish. The whole group is done with character and verve. The head of the serving woman, strikingly reminiscent of Hals, is especially fine, and shows that Teniers was not invariably aloof in his rendering of the peasant class. The secondary figures in this scene are convincing and infectious, with the attitude that they will make this party go yet.The principals, on the other hand, appear to be tired of it all. The Prodigal, clothed in a rich purple velvet jacket, fawn knee-britches and blue stockings, languidly extends his wine glass with his right hand while he clasps the fingers of the favored lady with his left. She, in filmy déshabillé, casts a speculative side-glance at him as the third member of the party, her back to the spectator, turns her head toward the serving woman. The main course of the supper has apparently been completed, for the table is an untidy clutter of pewter plates, the carcass of a chicken, a loaf of bread, and an elaborately frosted cake. The moment depicts the brief lull before the cake is served.The boredom of the supper guests is in marked contrast with the animation of the secondary figures who dominate the scene. It is their humorous participation in the occasion, together with the glowing, transparent color harmonies and the delicate, unbroken brushwork, that make this painting such a sparkling performance. In it Teniers shows himself to have been a brilliant painter of genre.In the Louvre’s painting of the Prodigal Son, reproduced on page 33, the same general scene is presented in an exterior view. Here, however, the party is seen at the beginning of the meal and the entire personnel have been increased from seven to ten. The innkeeper, his wife who is reckoning an account, and a small page are grouped behind and to the left of the supper party. The musicians are a less decrepit pair, and the serving woman has been replaced by an old fortuneteller. The Prodigal Son is a younger, less dissipated figure then in the Institute’s painting, and the favorite, although she appears to be the same model, is more animated. The potboy is a serious lad with none of the cockiness of the boy in the Institute’s painting. The Prodigal’s coat and hat are cast on a low stool at the left, and the wine cooler, accompanied by a pottery jug and glasses, appears on the ground at the lower right, thus reversing the position of the Art Institute’s picture. The same table, with feet in the form of dolphins’ heads, is used in both paintings.Teniers’ attention to detail, and the felicity with which he introduced his still life groups, are especially notable in these two paintings. He employed many of these same details over and over again. The little dog, for example, appears in the Louvre’s Prodigal Son,
in Teniers’ Chateau at Perck
in the National Gallery in London, in the Flemish Kermess
and The Five Senses
in Brussels, and in The Kitchen
at the Hague. The sketch that hangs so often in Teniers’ interiors—in the Institute’s painting above the chair at the right—occurs in The Smoker
at the Louvre, The Kitchen
and The Village Doctor
in the Brussels museum. The copper wine cooler of the Institute’s picture is to be found also in the Louvre Prodigal Son
and in The Kitchen.
The rounded loaves of bread, which contribute such a golden note to the still life of the Institute’s Prodigal Son,
appear also in the Louvre’s Prodigal Son
and in The Five Senses.
The reckoning board, on the wall behind the door in the Institute’s picture, is shown in use in the Louvre painting of the same subject and in The Payment of the Bill
in Dresden. The coat and hat thrown on a chair occur in the two Prodigal Sons
and in The Five Senses,
and the detail of the monkey is used again in The Five Senses.
Teniers executed details so faithfully that his pictures are among the most authentic of all representations of the life of his time. His paintings of picture galleries are done with such meticulous accuracy that they have served to authenticate and identify paintings many years after. His genre paintings convey an exact idea of manners, types, and interiors of his day.Teniers’ popularity, and it was tremendous for some two hundred years, derived partly from the fact that he painted the kind of pictures people liked. They were realistic without being shocking to the sensibilities of the time as the paintings of Brouwer and Van Ostade often were. Teniers’ predilection for peasant scenes, which surpass in tonal harmony and treatment any of the other subjects he attempted, has been the cause of some speculation on the part of certain historians. Teniers was a social climber as well as being an artist, and it is deemed odd that he should have applied himself to scenes of low life in view of his ambitions.But Teniers was also a businessman, and however well his subjects accorded with his private beliefs and ambitions he made them pay. Because of his head for business, his ingratiating manners, and his wit in realizing that his talents could never be ranked with those of such an artist as Rubens, he laid out a course that brought him wealth and fame. There is no record of his having studied with any particular master, and it is generally assumed that what training he had came from his father, whose style he improved and continued. He must have been influenced by Brouwer and he was certainly influenced by Rubens in his handling of color. He was born in Antwerp in 1610 and admitted to the Guild of St. Luke at the age of twenty-two. Five years later he must already have achieved pronounced success in his profession, for he married Anne Brueghel, daughter of Jan Velvet Brueghel. To Teniers this would have been a particularly advantageous marriage, for his wife was the ward of Rubens, who was one of the witnesses at the wedding. From the very beginning Teniers had made it a point to associate with men of wealth and position and this association with Rubens advanced him in his objective. His great desire was to achieve a social position equal to that of his gifted contemporary even though he never aspired to equal him as a painter. His social aspirations, however, were not wholly realized. In 1644 Teniers was made dean of the Guild of St. Luke in recognition of the success of the two pictures now in the Louvre: The Prodigal Son
and The Smoker.
An even more flattering appointment was that of court painter to the Archduke Leopold William, then Governor of the Netherlands. This position required Teniers’ presence in Brussels, where he took up his residence toward 1650. One of his duties as court painter was that of Director of the archducal picture gallery, and it was in this capacity that he was sent to England, upon the dispersal of the great collections of Charles I and the Duke of Buckingham, with orders to buy all the Italian paintings he could get. The record of many of his purchases is to be found in a volume of engravings made by him from the originals.Teniers’ fortunes prospered to such an extent under the patronage of the Archduke that he found himself in a position to buy an estate, the Château of Three Towers near Perck. With the acquisition of this property, which figures in several of his paintings, one of his greatest ambitions was realized. He became a landed gentleman. His career was further advanced when Don John of Austria, natural son of Philip IV who replaced Leopold William as Governor of the Netherlands, confirmed him in the office he had held in Leopold William’s service. He appears to have been on very friendly terms with Don John, and his chateau became a rendezvous for distinguished visitors from Spain, the Netherlands, and England. Don John was a generous patron, whose association with Teniers recalls the relationship existing between an earlier Don John, the natural son of Charles V, and Philip II’s court painter, Sanchez Coello. Among other good deeds Don John sent a number of Teniers’ paintings to Philip IV, who was so captivated by them that he filled the Spanish collections with works from Teniers’ hand.It may have been at this time that the painting of The Prodigal Son
now in the Institute went to Spain, where it is known history begins in the Escorial. It was sold by the Spanish government during the wars of the Empire, and thereafter passed through several well-known European collections before its arrival in this country. The esteem in which it like others of Teniers’ works, was held until the late nineteenth century is indicated by the price of $20,000 paid for it in the San Donato sale of 1880. Since that time of exaggerated appreciation for the artist’s work his paintings have been accorded a more accurate level of value, which is well below that of Rubens and Rembrandt but high among great seventeenth-century painters of genre.Referenced Works of Art
- The Prodigal Son at Table with Two Courtesans. Detail of a painting by David Teniers the Younger
- The Prodigal Son By David Teniers the Younger, Flemish, 1610-1690. Dunwoody Fund
- The Prodigal Son by David Teniers the Younger. Louvre Museum
Photograph courtesy of the Frick Reference Library
- Detail of Monkey in The Prodigal Son
- The Prodigal Son in an inn. Detail showing supper table with two courtesans, musicians, and a serving woman. Teniers the Younger