When we think today of "low art," we often bring to mind velvet Elvises, poker playing dogs, big-eyed children, cats, or dogs, and other mischievous subjects. We might even term it "peasant" art. It's nothing new. In fact, we could even say it's always existed. No less artists than Michelangelo and Caravaggio were known to have drawn their models from peasant stock. It's believed some of Michelangelo's faces and figures on his vaunted Sistine Ceiling may have drawn their inspiration from local inns and Roman "watering holes" of his time. Caravaggio was roundly criticized by the art world of his era for his use of "dirty" peasant models even for religious figures such as in his "Death of the Virgin Mary." In 17th century Antwerp, an artist by the name of Adriaen Brouwer made a career of this kind of art. But even though his figures were definitely "lowlifes" there was nothing "low" about his painting. No less an art expert than Peter Paul Rubens owned SEVENTEEN of his works. Rembrandt owned six. He was definitely a cut above poker playing dogs.
Brouwer was born in 1606 in the Belgian town of Oudenaerde. His father was a tapestry designer from whom he no doubt learned the rudiments of his art. At the tender age of fifteen, he made his way to Amsterdam and then to Haarlem where he had the great good fortune to study under the painterly master, Frans Hals. While still in his early twenties he was referred to as a "famous painter." What was he famous for painting? Well, judging from the number of his works bearing the title "Smokers" in one form or another, it seems he might have been something of a nicotine addict, not to mention addicted to PAINTING them. His 1636 painting on the subject is believed to be a rollicking portrait of himself blowing smoke rings. In fact, one sees his smoking figures enjoying themselves SO much it raises the question as to just WHAT they were smoking in their white porcelain pipes.
There are also other tavern images of drinking, brawling, carousing, eating, cooking, and did I mention smoking? One particularly graphic work from 1635 entitled "The Bitter Draught" depicts what can only be termed a "wino" dramatically grimacing in disgust at the potability of his liquid refreshment. It's hilarious; and in it's likeness to the work of Hals, might just as easily have been painted in any skid-row bar today. Sometimes his work is termed monochromatic, but then again, the smokey, flea-bitten world in which he lived was no doubt pretty colorless as well. And often his faces and figures border on caricature, yet there is nothing sentimental or cute about any of Brouwer's figures. In fact he's downright UNsympathetic to their peasant plight, stopping just short of being moralistic, perhaps because he himself was well acquainted with their drunkenness and grimy poverty. He died at the age of thirty-three quite likely of tuberculosis or alcoholism, having known well the inside of a debtor's prison and the underside of a tavern table.