In the Low Countries, the Feast of Epiphany, or Twelfth Night, is known as Driekoningen (Three Kings). The Christian holiday is traditionally celebrated on January 6th with a festive meal at which friends and relatives gathered to eat, drink, and be merry. Driekoningen originated as a medieval church holiday with public performances and festivals reenacting the biblical story of three kings or magi from the East who follow a bright star to find and do homage to the newborn King of the Jews. Their successful quest led to King Herod's decree to kill all boys under the age of two (Massacre of the Innocents) and to the Holy Family's flight into Egypt (Matthew 2.1–23) Although public performances had become outmoded in the 17th century, Twelfth Night continued to be celebrated in taverns and homes.
Teniers captured the high point of Twelfth-Night festivities in his native Flanders, depicting the moment when the evening's newly crowned "King" raises his beer tankard while the "members of his court," including the jester, salute him with shouts of "the king drinks!" The king was chosen by chance, either by finding a bean or a coin in a cake baked for the occasion or by lottery, as is evident here from the two slips of paper on the floor and the one stuck on the hat of the young man seated at back. The king's paper crown was often decorated with images of the Virgin and Child, Joseph, and the Three Kings.
In Peasants Celebrating Twelfth Night, Teniers effectively used the architectural elements of the tavern to reinforce his pictorial narrative and to isolate the main group of celebrants against plain plaster walls in a corner. Despite the relatively sparse interior of this humble inn, the good-natured joviality of the company marveling at the drinking prowess of the young king gives the scene great warmth.
This beautifully executed work is the earliest known of the large number of representations of Twelfth Night in 17th-century Dutch and Flemish painting. With this panel, Teniers established the thematic prototypes that frequently recur in his own work, as well as in later paintings by other interpreters of this holiday. His characterizations of the celebrants are particularly masterful: the jaunty jester calling attention to the king chugging down his beer at the far end of the table; the warm-hearted, admiring gaze of the older woman in a blue jacket and white headscarf; the boy peering through the opening in the wall; and the drunken guffaw of the large-nosed lout at right who turns away from the urine bucket he has just helped fill. In the dimly lit background, a woman bakes pancakes, the traditional Twelfth Night fare. As she sits before the open fire and converses with a man holding a pipe, nearby children enjoy the fruits of her labor.
The subject of Twelfth Night was appealing not only for its narrative possibilities, but also for its moralizing ones. Chance, after all, determined the selection of one individual to be king, one whose rule would last but a fleeting day. The owl on its perch, representing the ability to distinguish between what is true and what is not, is ignored by the temporary king and his courtiers. Perhaps illustrating the Dutch proverb that "not all fools wear a fool's cap," Teniers draws attention to the foibles of the boisterous group by emphasizing the jester through his stance and through his vivid red and yellow fool's cap.
Teniers, one of the most prolific Flemish artists, painted a wide range of subjects but is best known for representations of peasant life, of which this work—with the artist's firm modeling and careful control of lighting effects—is a beautiful example. Teniers probably began his career in the studio of his father David Teniers the Elder (1582–1649), who was a painter of small-scale history paintings. Upon entering Antwerp's Saint Luke's Guild in 1632/1633 he began to specialize in low-life genre scenes in a style derived from the work of Adriaen Brouwer (1605/1606–1638), a Haarlem artist who had moved to Antwerp in the early 1630s. Teniers, who was incredibly versatile, also painted subjects that range from alchemists and witches to allegorical and biblical themes. He is famous, furthermore, for finely painted views of collectors' cabinets, many of which include portraits. Teniers developed a close personal as well as professional association with Peter Paul Rubens, and collaborated frequently with other painters as well. In 1645 and 1646, Teniers served as dean of the Antwerp artists' guild. Starting in 1647, Teniers entered the services of Archduke Leopold Wilhelm, governor of the Southern Netherlands, and was appointed official court painter in 1650. In these years he also worked for other European rulers, including Prince Willem II of Orange, Queen Christina of Sweden, and the exiled Prince Charles of England [the future Charles II]. Teniers, who seems to have retired from court life in 1659, purchased a country house in 1662. He advocated for the establishment of an academy of painting in Antwerp, which eventually opened in 1665. He died in 1690, at the age of 79, after enjoying a lifetime of fame and popularity.