Born in Flanders near the Dutch border, Brouwer immigrated to Haarlem in the early 1620s, where he may have studied with Frans Hals (c.1582/1583-1666) at the same time as the Dutch genre painter Adriaen van Ostade (1610-1685). After living in Haarlem and Amsterdam until the early 1630s, Brouwer moved to Antwerp, where he joined Saint Luke's Guild during the winter of 1631-1632. He remained in Antwerp until his untimely death in 1638 at the age of thirty-two.
Although the broad outlines of his life are well established, surprisingly little is known about his activities beyond the fact that he belonged to rhetoricians' chambers (literary and dramatic societies) in Haarlem and Antwerp. Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century critics greatly praised his work, particularly its humor and truthfulness to nature. However, they also provided colorful stories about his wanton behavior, believing that his expressive and unidealized images of intoxicated peasants drinking, smoking, and fighting reflected his own dissolute life. For example, according to one account, Brouwer was frequently excluded from family celebrations because of his untidy appearance. Anticipating a certain wedding, he bought a fashionable suit of clothes that got him an invitation. In the midst of the festivities, he took two pies and smeared them all over his fancy clothes, stating that since it was his suit that was invited, it, rather than its wearer, deserved to feast.
Perhaps there is a germ of truth in these stories, for Brouwer did incur a large number of debts and was jailed for at least seven months in 1633. Nevertheless, Sir Anthony Van Dyck, in his Iconography--a series of portraits of "famous men" published in 1644--portrayed Brouwer as a gentleman painter with a dignified bearing, an image difficult to associate with the rowdy world he recorded in his paintings. Despite his appearance as a "learned painter," the inscription underneath this portrait identifies him as a painter of vulgar or comic subjects (Gryllorum Pictor).
Only about sixty of Brouwer's paintings are known, almost all of them devoted to scenes of peasants in taverns or lowly hovels. The overriding sense of naturalism stems not only from his keen observation of gesture and expression but also from his remarkably lively technique, which consists of short, unmodulated strokes of paint. In most of his interiors the figures seem to loom out of the darkness, which adds to their expressive character. Both his subject matter and his style had tremendous impact in the Netherlands and Flanders, particularly on the work of Adriaen van Ostade and David Teniers the Younger. Peter Paul Rubens and Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) also greatly admired, and collected, his works. [This is the artist's biography published in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
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