Situated within the earthen courtyard of a vine-covered cottage is a tender vignette of domestic harmony and tranquility. The mother at the center of the family group busily cleans mussel shells in preparation for the evening meal. While the husband watches from the doorway of the wooden wall at the rear of the courtyard, an older sister cares for her youngest sibling as two other children play with the family dog. No comings or goings, no exceptional confrontations or other unusual circumstances provided motivation for this scene; rather, Adriaen van Ostade seems to be celebrating the peaceful existence of this family tending to daily life.
When writing about Van Ostade in the early eighteenth century, Arnold Houbraken marveled at the lively and spirited nature of the artist’s peasant scenes. To emphasize Van Ostade’s remarkable naturalism and tender view of country life, Houbraken compared his images of rural folk to those found in an early eighteenth-century pastural poem about a country kermis (fair). In his associations between poetry and Van Ostade’s image Houbraken emphasized the artist’s imaginative interpretation of reality. In this painting, for example, Van Ostade captured not only the various attitudes of the members of the peasant family but also the sense of their home environment, whether it be the earthenware pots scattered here and there, the clothes hanging over the line, the dovecotes, the beehives, or the broken panes of glass in the upper windows. Their world seems real and tangible; the textures of the bricks, mortar, wood, glass, and cloth are convincingly indicated through subtle nuances of Van Ostade’s brush. Finally, his organization of light and shadow helps unify the scene while his selected color accents enliven the image.
Van Ostade almost certainly composed this work from various studies made from life; it was his practice throughout his career to make drawings of figures that he then used as points of departure for his paintings and etchings. Although no preliminary drawings have been associated with this work, specific evidence that he composed this painting in the studio comes from a comparison with a finished drawing from the same year entitled Pig Slaughtering in Peasant Village [fig. 1]. Many elements in the two compositions are identical, including the wash hanging on the line, but the artist has modified the building and setting in subtle ways: he changed the leading in the windows and opened the vista to the background to create the sense of a village street rather than a courtyard. One motif, however, has remained the same: the vine clinging to the cottage, a traditional image of fertility and conjugal felicity.
Van Ostade painted The Cottage Dooryard near the end of a long and illustrious career during which he created numerous drawings and etchings of rural life as well as paintings (see Tavern Scene). As his style evolved from a relatively dark to a light palette, his attention shifted from depictions of rowdy peasants to those whose lives embodied family values centered on mutual caring and sharing of domestic responsibilities. Country folk in his late work no longer occupy hovels, but rather more substantial structures, which are rustic in appearance and simply furnished.
The stylistic evolution, in many ways gradual and quite understandable in the broader context of Dutch art, does, nevertheless, raise questions about the changing nature of the artist’s image of country life. If, following Houbraken’s lead, one views Van Ostade’s images of peasants as poetic evocations of rural life that he has “thought up” rather than as descriptive reality, then it is important to try to understand his attitudes toward his subject matter. The shift in style and concept may be sociological as well as artistic. Whereas during the 1630s and 1640s there seemed to be widespread assumptions that lower-class people were bestial or vulgar, by the 1670s the rural Dutch, unaffected by the influx of foreign influences and the pursuit of wealth that was so evident in city life, came to embody the ideal virtues at the foundation of Dutch culture. These, in large part, had been codified in the prolific writings of Jacob Cats, whose work was frequently republished throughout the century, and would continue to be so until the mid-nineteenth century. The domestic tranquility and homey virtues found in Van Ostade’s depictions of lower-class households during the latter part of his career thus represent a view of peasant existence seen through a veil of nostalgia for a simpler, less complex way of life, one that incorporated values that had been at the essence of Dutch society. In this regard, it is interesting that Van Ostade created this idyllic scene the year after he had fled Haarlem because of the French invasion of the Netherlands.
One also wonders whether the exquisite watercolors [fig. 2] Van Ostade made after this and other similar late paintings spoke to the same need. The positive response to these late paintings and their related watercolors was immediate and lasting and may explain much about the widespread appeal of mid-seventeenth-century Dutch art in the Netherlands at the beginning of the eighteenth century.
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.
April 24, 2014