Adriaen Brouwer, The Smokers (ca. 1636), oil on wood, 18-1/4 x 14-1/2″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art
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“The master of puke, pus and piss.” That’s how a veteran New York artist described the Flemish painter Adriaen Brouwer (c. 1606-1638). If it seems a more appropriate moniker for horror-show neo-Dadaists like Ed Keinholz and Paul McCarthy, well, you get the point: Brouwer specialized in genre scenes teeming with lowlifes engaged in sundry acts of drunkenness, sloth, greed and kindred vices.
Don’t get the idea that Brouwer employed these themes with a moralist’s eye. His robust brushwork is part-and-parcel of a salacious humanism. Rumor has it that the central figure in The Smokers is the artist himself. Given accounts of Brouwer’s rambunctious lifestyle, it’s likely the case.
A student of Frans Hals, Brouwer was much admired by Rembrandt and Rubens. Or, rather, they admired the pictures. Brouwer was troublesome and unreliable. Having hired him as a member of his workshop, Rubens canned Brouwer after two days for showing up drunk. That didn’t stop the Flemish master from arranging for bail when Brouwer landed in jail for failing to pay his debts or from collecting seventeen Brouwer canvases.
Brouwer died at age thirty-two from (or so the theory has it) a stroke brought on by excessive drinking and smoking. Working in the gap between art and life: Brouwer beat Robert Rauschenberg to that particular trope by some 300 years–if not to his own benefit, then to history’s.
© 2011 Mario Naves