Wine in celebrations and social life

The Fight Between Carnival and Lent, Pieter Brueghel the Elder, 1559 - Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austriae | Celebrations and Social Life | Social Life and Life in Society | From Drinking to Savoir-boire | Wine and Painting | The Virtual Wine Museum

 

THE FIGHT BETWEEN CARNIVAL AND LENT

Pieter Brueghel the Elder (ca. 1525-1569) 

1559

Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria

 

 

Pieter Brueghel the Elder is considered one of the greatest Flemish ‘genre’ painters of the sixteenth century. Although best known for his scenes of peasant life, he was also a perceptive observer of colorful countryside traditions, drawing on the visionary folklore of Jerome Bosch. 

 

The Fight Between Carnival and Lent symbolises the passing of the ‘fat days’ before Lent. This scene of country mores uses a staged fight to caricature those who are still celebrating Carnival and those who have already started Lent. The fun-lovers are led by Carnival, a fat man sitting on a barrel. On the right, a painfully thin woman embodies the spirit of Lent..

Here, the festival scene is used to represent the comédie humaine. Each of the precisely-placed, colorful figures is part of a microcosm representing the wider world. “It is the combat of two antagonistic cultural and ideological organisations: Festival, which makes life tolerable by the derisory designation of a god to sacrifice; and Austerity, which promises eternal salvation to those who cope with everyday alienation. Bruegel places this scene in a living space, filled with the sounds of nature, games and work, music, laughter, moans and murmurs.” (J. Attali, Bruits [Noises], PUF, 1977).

15TH-17TH CENTURIES

GARDEN PARTY AT THE COURT OF PHILLIP OF BURGUNDY (FÊTE CHAMPÊTRE A LA COUR DE PHILIPPE LE BON) Unk. Master, 1410/15 - Fine Arts Mus., Dijon, France / 1
THE EGG DANCE
Pieter Aertsen, 1552 - Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam / 2
THE WINE OF SAINT MARTIN'S DAY
Pieter Brueghel the Elder, ca. 1565/68 - Museo del Prado, Madrid / 3
FEAST OF THE CHAMBER OF RHETORICIANS NEAR A TOWN-GATE
Jan Steen, 1660s? - Private collection / 4
BANQUET OF THE OFFICERS OF THE ST GEORGE CIVIC GUARD
Frans Hals, 1616 - Frans Halsmuseum, Haarlem, The Netherlands / 5
THE MERRY DRINKER
Frans Hals, 1630 - Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands / 6
THE KING DRINKS, detail
Jan Miense Molenaer, 1636-1637 - Lichtenstein Museum, Vaduz / 7
THE KING DRINKS
Jacob Jordaens, 1640 - Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels / 8
THE BEAN KING
Jacob Jordaens, 1640-1645 - Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria / 9
THE FEST OF THE BEAN KING
Gabriel Metsu, ca. 1650/55 - Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Germany / 10
THE BEAN FEAST
Jan Steen, 1668 - Staatliche Museen, Kassel, Germany / 11
AS THE OLD SING, SO PIPE THE YOUNG
Jan Steen, ca. 1668/70 - Mauritshuis, The Hague, The Netherlands / 12
COUNTRY WEDDING
Jan Steen, 1662/66 - Private collection / 13
THE DANCING COUPLE
Jan Steen, 1663 - National Gallery of Art, Washington / 14
GARDEN PARTY
Jan Steen, 1677 - Private collection / 15
KITCHEN SCENE David Teniers the Younger
1644 - Mauritshuis, The Hague, The Netherlands / 16
FEAST OF THE WINE (THE PROCESSION OF THE FATTED OX)
Master of the Processions of the Ram, ca. 1650 - Musée Picasso, Paris / 17
THE DRUNKARDS or THE FEAST OF BACCHUS (LOS BORRACHOS)
Velázquez, 1628-1629 - Museo del Prado, Madrid / 18

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1. This is a 17th-century copy of a 16th-century painting, based in turn on an image from the 15th century. The scene features elegant lords and ladies, all dressed in white, surrounded by their servants and dogs. They enjoy the country feast, music, dancing and hunting. Behind them is a river, in the middle of which we can see a strange building on stilts. The coats of arms on the musicians’ trumpets and above the doorway of the building belong to Philippe le Bon (Duke of Burgundy from 1419 to 1467) or Charles the Timid (1467 to 1477), but the outfits date from 1410-20. The grounds of the Château de Hesdin, in the Artois region (featuring a “water lodge” on stilts in the Ternoise River) may play host to the scene.

2. The Egg Dance, by Pieter Aertsen, shows an entertainment which was traditional among Dutch peasants during this period. The painter exploits and denounces man’s relationship with earthly pleasures. Food is thrown and trodden into the floor during the raucous entertainment: the dancer has to avoid the flowers strewn across the tiles while leaving the egg intact. Alcohol makes this challenge much harder! Aertsen’s moralistic approach seems to prefigure that of the ‘Golden Age’ of Dutch painting.

3. Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s The Wine of Saint Martin's Day was only discovered in 2010. It represents a village scene of the Feast of St Martin (the 11th November), during which new wine was drunk. This painting brings the number of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s known works to 41. The Saint is shown as a noble knight astride a white horse, placed in the bottom right of the painting, who has unsheathed his sword in order to give part of his purple cloak to a shivering beggar. Bruegel contrasts this act of piety with the drinking scene on the left. The contrast is not flattering – men and women, old and young, crowd around the red barrel, pushing and shoving in order to fill a pot or cup. The characters’ faces show greed, lust, anger or intemperance – all cardinal sins. Le Prado described the painting as “a sort of Tower of Babel of wine-drinkers.” The painting is based on the opposition between the saint’s act of charity and the ignominious behavior of the drinkers. This canvas is both a moral lesson and a reminder of elementary virtues.

4. Frans Hals was a member of a Chamber of Rhetoric in Haarlem. These literary societies, which modelled themselves on commercial guilds, initially aimed to promote art in public life. From the fifteenth century in the Netherlands, rhetorical literature was produced by citizens and artisans, reunited in these amateur societies. The Chambers regularly organised literary competitions and played an active role in local festivities such as this Feast of the Chamber of Rhetoricians near a Town-Gate. In this painting Jan Steen gives us an ironic look at the ‘eloquence’ of the drinker. The rhetoricians’ penchant for drinking was often criticised by ‘polite’ members of society.

5. In the seventeenth century, members of the Dutch bourgeoisie pose for Banquet of the Officers of the St George Civic Guard, proud to show their sense of civic duty in belonging to this “respectable (civil) militia of the city of Haarlem”. It is not a generic scene of revelry, but rather a collective portrait of identifiable individuals, reunited for a festive portrait around a banquet. We can suppose that only choice wines are on offer here, perhaps imported from the Loire Valley after strong Dutch demand.  The wine may be of a classic variety, such as the very sweet pineau de la Loire, better known today as chenin blanc. Such a wine would have reflected the sitters’ social status. Frans Hals captures the gestures and expressions of these officers. The festivities would have lasted several days and were so controversial at the time that the authorities ended up limiting their duration to a maximum of four days. We can imagine the excesses that led to this intervention.

6. During the same period, wine allows this character, The Merry Drinker, to affirm his social status. As an officer in the Dutch militia, the subject wishes to show both his civic-mindedness and his material success. The latter allows him to enjoy the best wines, served in German-made Berkemeyer glasses. He is a man of taste; he must convince others of this fact, hence the commissioned portrait.

7 to 10. In less ‘enlightened’ social circles, any event could be cause for celebration. The desire to forget daily hardships gave rise to numerous festivals, religious or otherwise, which were far more numerous than national holidays today. The Festival of the Epiphany, more commonly known as the Festival of the Three Kings, was especially favoured by painters. It was for a long time considered more important than Christmas! Although the festival was religious, the sharing of the galette des rois gave rise to a traditional feast in which wine would flow freely. This can be seen in The King Drinks, by Jacob Jordaens, or The Feast of the Bean King, by Gabriel Metsu.

11. In his numerous paintings of everyday family life, Steen liked to moralise. He did this through references to Scripture, old proverbs, aphorisms and symbolism. Here, the king is shown as a young boy, apparently chosen at random. An old woman is helping him to empty his glass. The woman slumped on the chair seems tipsy.  Her low neckline allows the viewer a glimpse of her breasts. A supposedly faithful wife, does her slightly malicious expression here imply a recent moral lapse? The uncaged bird leads us to suspect this. Even empty, the birdcage is a reminder of the bonds of marriage. The empty cage, also present in Vermeer’s The Music Lesson, symbolises captivity in love, a popular theme among Dutch painters.

12. Steen’s As the Old Sing, So Pipe the Young shows a festive family scene: the characters eat, play music, drink, smoke, laugh and shout. This time, the cage holds two birds. The woman holds out her glass for more wine. The wine sparkles; a pitcher sits forgotten on the floor near the woman’s feet. On the right, the father (Steen himself) shows his young son how to smoke a pipe. The song, visible on the old woman’s paper, refers back to an old Flemish proverb which criticises adults who set children a bad example.

13. Steen’s Country Wedding plunges us into another scene of rural feasting – a wedding. The whole village is enjoying the party.

14. Not all Steen’s paintings show wantonness and lust! Here, the message is much more downbeat. At this village fete, two young musicians play for a dancing couple, while other characters flirt, eat, drink wine and smoke and children play under a vine-covered arbour. Despite the apparent frivolity of the scene, Steen uses emblems such as cut flowers, broken eggshells and soap bubbles to remind the viewer of the short-lived nature of earthly pleasures. The church in the background reminds us that we should live by more durable (Christian) values. 

 

15. In Garden Party, we move on to an upper-class celebration with music and food. Jan Steen sets the scene in a garden. His allegory of the five senses puts the viewer in the position of the Sense of Sight. The status of this elegant and joyful gathering is shown in the luxurious table settings and relatively subdued behavior of the guests. The invitees are for the most part well-behaved; some, shown from behind, are wearing sumptuous velveteen coats and feathers in their hats. Wine, music and gallantry are at the heart of the fun.

 

16. In his Kitchen Scene, David Teniers the Younger takes us behind the scenes. A magnificent pie prepared by the kitchen staff, decorated with a whole swan, draws the eye while large containers of wine wait to be opened.

17. Created in the Middle Ages by the Guild of Butchers, the Fete du Bœuf Gras (Feast of the Fat Cow) would take place during the Paris Carnival, during the ‘fat days’ before Lent. A cow (or fat bull) would be paraded by butcher boys accompanied by a dancing master – here, a young man who is shown playing the pochette, a miniature violin with a long handle. In other corteges, a hurdy gurdy was played. The cow would be killed on Mardi Gras, before Lent began on Ash Wednesday. The French Revolution put an end to this popular tradition: eyed with suspicion like all parts of the Carnival, the feast was banned in 1790 in the name of public order.

18. Velázquez painted this picture of Bacchus surrounded by eight drinkers for Philippe IV, who hung it in his summer bedroom. This work is not only unique in its genre, but also stands out in Spanish painting in general because drinking scenes were very rare (unlike in Dutch or Flemish painting). Drunkenness was considered a despicable vice in Spain. The word ‘borracho’ (‘drunk’) was a terrible insult. This work shows harvest workers toasting. It can be interpreted in a number of ways and is still a subject of discussion among art historians. William Sterling (Velázquez and his Works, 1865) described it thus: “With The Drinkers, Velázquez proves that, despite painting princes, he has not forgotten how to paint grotesque figures. This composition of nine life-sized figures shows a vulgar Bacchus, crowned with vine leaves and sitting on a barrel; he places a similar crown on his comrade’s head. The ceremony is carried out with that gravity so typical to drunkards, in the presence of a few peasants affected by the wine to varying degrees. One is seated, lost in sombre meditation; another, his cup well-filled, has just delivered a joke to a third man which provokes a burst of laughter, hence the distortion of his jaw. A fourth figure, slightly behind the others, has drunk to excess like the third; rolling around on a bench, he contemplates the goblet in his hand. In terms of force of character and lively colors, this painting has never been surpassed; the humorous tone of the piece assures Velázquez’s status as The Andalusian Hogarth.” These peasants are celebrating the end of the harvest and the changing of the season. They are throwing a joyful bacchanal in honor of Bacchus (the Roman name for Dionysus), god of excitement, frenzy and enthusiasm for wine. It seems that Rubens may have inspired Velázquez with his description of a masked ball in honor of the Archduke Albert the Pious and his wife Claire Eugénie, which had taken place in Brussels several years earlier; but the artist may also have had another event in mind: a cavalry procession in Madrid not dissimilar to the painting...

18TH CENTURY

THE GAME OF BILLIARDS (LA PARTIE DE BILLARD)
J-B. Chardin, ca. 1721/25 - Musée Carnavalet, Paris / 1
AN ELEGANT COMPANY AT A TABLE OUTSIDE A FARM HOUSE
Attributed to François Octavien, ca. 1720/30 - Private collection
HUNTING PICNIC (PIQUE-BIQUE DE CHASSE)
Françoy Lemoine, 1723 - Arts Museum, São Paulo, Brazil / 3
MEAL DURING THE HUNT (REPAS DE CHASSE), oil sketch
François Boucher, 1730s - Musée du Louvre, Paris / 4
HALT DURING THE HUNT (HALTE DE CHASSE)
Carle van Loo, 1737 - Musée du Louvre, Paris / 5
A HUNTING MEAL (DEJEUNER DE CHASSE)
Jean-François de Troy, 1737 - Musée du Louvre, Paris / 6
A PICNIC (detail)
Francisco de Goya, 1785/90 - The National Gallery, London / 7
DINNER OF THE PRINCE OF CONTI AT THE TEMPLE-1766)
M-B. Ollivier, 1777 - Versailles and Trianon Mus., Versailles / 8
THE DINNER
Thomas Rowlandson, 1787 - The Hermitage, St. Petersburg, Russia / 9

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1. In France, billiards, traditionally a nobleman’s pastime, was popularised in the eighteenth century after the installation of tables in public spaces. Vivant Denon confirms that numerous public billiard halls were established during this period. It became a popular game and these ‘academies’ – open at all hours of day or night and frequented by all sorts of people – became convivial drinking spaces especially appreciated by the middle classes. Jean-Baptiste Chardin uses the billiard hall as the setting of his painting The Game of Billiards.

 

3-4. Hunting, on the other hand, remained the preserve of the noblemen. A pause in the hunt leaves time for François Lemoine’s Hunting Picnic, or François Boucher’s Meal during the Hunt. Standing out from the centre of this composition thanks to the whiteness of his linen, one of the party – disheveled, his gaze unfocussed and a knotted handkerchief on his head – gives us a comic view of the occasion. He holds a bottle of red wine in one hand, the other hand holding out his glass in the same way as two of his colleagues. The fourth hunter slips into a nap. For the Louvre, “the pittoresque gesture of the three raised glasses brings this painting among the best artistic tributes to the ‘divine drink’. This detail, in wine iconography, is only equalled by the leaping cork in Jean-François de Troy’s Oyster Lunch.”

 

5-6. The hunting party assembles to dine in the same open-air setting, as illustrated by Carle Van Loo in Halt during the Hunt and Jean-François de Troy in A Hunting Meal. “The table is set fastidiously; the dogs participate in the feast. Carriages and horses are moved away while servants bring chairs from the inn. They take silverware and cold dishes from wicker baskets and set them down on the damask tablecloth. It is not common practice in the eighteenth century to set glasses on the table – they will instead be handed out by servants on demand. ‘French-style’ table service dictates the order of the dishes and the way in which they are served. The many dishes are carried out in successive ‘waves’ or ‘services’. The soup and starter course is followed by that of roast meats and salads, then other savory dishes. The meal is finished with fruit.” Although fine Burgundy wines still reigned supreme in Parisian cellars at this time, sparkling champagne was becoming fashionable among the aristocracy. This divergence can be seen in Van Loo’s painting: red wine may be being served in the background, but in the foreground a black servant carries champagne bottles in a basket.

 

7. A Picnic (Merienda campestre) by Francisco de Goya is set during the festival of Isidore the Labourer, patron saint of Madrid. Elegantly-dressed youths are shown at the end of their al fresco meal: one of them is drunk, while another, glass in hand, tries to flirt with his neighbour. The playful atmosphere is heating up, and a flirtatious game of blind-man’s-buff is sure to follow!

 

8. In the Dinner of the Prince of Conti at the Temple, 1766 by Michel Barthélémy Ollivier, “the Prince of Conty is dressed in red, a black ribbon (of the Order of St Michel) around his neck; he takes a bottle in an ice-bucket and leans towards Mme de Boufflers (his mistress) on the right...” Now highly fashionable, champagne appears on the table six years before Romanée reds from the Vosne region; the sparkling wine is already very well-known and much appreciated. Arbiter of good taste, the Prince keeps the wine in reserve for guests at his famous Monday suppers.

 

9. For certain members of the upper class in eighteenth-century London, wine meant port and every evening was a party. These individuals were described as “athletes of liquor”. If they did not fall under the table, they would climb onto it, like the gentlemen of Thomas Rowlandson’s Dinner (1787, Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg). Capable of downing three bottles of port in a single evening, they were known as three-bottle men. This was even the admission test of the famous Hellfire Club. Such behavior was not romanticized but rather satirized; Rowlandson’s aggressive and popular style evokes the satirical work of Hogarth.

19TH CENTURY

THE WEDDING MEAL AT YPORT (UN REPAS DE NOCES À YPORT)
Albert Fourié, 1886 - Fine Arts Museum, Rouen, France / 1
FEAST SCENE (SCÈNE DE FÊTE)
Giovanni Boldini, ca. 1889 - Musée d'Orsay, Paris / 2
BALL ON THE 14TH OF JULY (BAL DU 14 JUILLET)
Théophile Alexandre Steilen, 1889 - Musée du Petit Palais, Paris / 3

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1. The painter, Albert Fourié, was accused of working from a photograph in his studio. But there exists a picture of the painter outside, next to his unfinished piece. This anecdote illustrates the way in which photography was seen as a rival to painting at the time. Further proof of this was the suggestion that Fourie had placed his canvas beneath the trees – a photographic method – in order to better recreate the effect of dappled light falling through the leaves and onto the table. In any case, the painter had a photographer’s concern with capturing fleeting facial expressions and attitudes. (Source: Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rouen)

2. Doubtless Boldini depicts here the Moulin-Rouge shortly after its opening in 1889; the establishment soon became a centre of Parisian nightlife. 

3. For this Bastille Day celebration, the painter gathers a whole panoply of rough and ready Parisian characters: workers, craftsmen and domestics, but also the pimps and conmen popularly known as the Apaches.

20TH-21ST CENTURIES

THE TOAST (LE TOAST)
Félix Vallotton, 1902 - Musée d'Orsay, Paris
CIRCLE OF THE GOOD TUESDAYS OF CHARLES CAZALET AT MAJESTIC
Georges de Sonneville, 1923 - Private collection / 2
A BANQUET
Peng Wan Ts, 1981/2006 - Musée d'Art Moderne de Paris

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2. In Bordeaux between the wars, the Circle of the Good Tuesdays of Charles Cazalet, composed of wine merchants and connoisseurs, dined regularly at Le Majestic. Whilst Le Majestic was known for the quality of its wine cellar, each also brought along their best bottles to share. It was therefore a place for Bordeaux wines, but also others – some people wouldn’t hesitate to bring along a bottle of champagne!

3. Peng Wan Ts, a person of Taiwanese origin living in Paris, was always at the forefront of social and political criticism.

LOOKS CAN BE DECEIVING

Peasant Wedding, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1566/69 - Kunsthistorisches, Vienna, Austria

The Peasant Wedding, dating from 1567-69, was one of the Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s final paintings. This painting, copied and reproduced countless times, symbolises a shared experience, and is therefore perfect for illustrating the role of wine. In any case, this is the argument put forward by the writers of the excellent Web Gallery of Art. The only problem is that it is not wine that is being served so generously to the wedding guests. In the 16th century, in Flanders as in the north of France, wine was not seen as a cheap, high-calorie workers’ tonic, but rather as the drink of the social elite. Common people drank beer (up to two to four litres per day, per person), even for festive occasions. Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum, now home to this magnificent artwork, indicates that this is the case for this country wedding (Cäcilia Bischoff, ‘Masterpieces of the Picture Gallery’, A Brief Guide to the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna 2010). Ernst Gombrich expresses the same opinion in his unrivalled History of Art. Alexander Wied, a Brueghel specialist, shares the same view.

A final clue: the color and consistency of the liquid being poured are those of beer. It is served generously and the guests pass up their glasses, each having brought his or her own tankard from home. The drink matches the homely food being served: bread, porridge and stew.

CELEBRATIONS AN SOCIAL LIFE IN MEDIEVAL ILLUMINATIONS

BURGUNDY DINNER
BURGUNDY DINNER
Valère Maxime, 1420/50 - Staatsbibliothek, Berlin, Grmany
WEDDING BANQUET
WEDDING BANQUET
History of Olivier de Castille and Artus d'Algarbes - BnF, Paris
TRÈS RICHES HEURES DU DUC DE BERRY
LES TRÈS RICHES HEURES DU DUC DE BERRY, JANUARY
Frères de Limbourg, 1412/16 - Conde Museum, Chantilly, France
ROYAL FEAST FOR KING RICHARD II
ROYAL FEAST FOR KING RICHARD II
Fin du XVème siècle - British Library, Londres
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A pictorial technique similar to that of frescoes or miniatures, illuminations were very popular during the Middle Ages. Done by hand, illuminations decorated or illustrated texts, usually on handwritten manuscripts. Until the 12th century, manuscripts were copied out in religious settings, such as abbeys, where they were used to support prayer and meditation. From the 13th century, private artisans began to produce literature for the secular market. This was due to the greater literacy that had resulted from the growing university and administrative sectors.

 

Find out more: Wine in Illuminations, From Drinking to Savoir-boire  >>

WINE AND THE ARTS: ANTIQUE FRESCOES, TAPESTRY, OBJETS D'ART, AND POSTERS

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The ‘Muses’ companion’, wine is present across the artistic spectrum, be it in literature, music, decorative or fine arts. Wine is an essential witness to our social and cultural history. Although the Virtual Wine Museum is mainly concerned with painting at present, some examples drawn from other artistic formats permit us to illustrate the universal role of wine, to ‘bear witness’ to it. A few examples of non-painted works on the same theme as this gallery: an antique fresco of the Tomb of the Leopards in the Etruscan necropolis of Tarquinia, in central Italy; a panel from the Bayeux Tapestry inviting us to discover William the Conqueror’s conquest of the English throne and his first banquet with his Norman barons on English soil, the bishop blessing the food and drink; a drinking game featuring Diana with a stag; and, from the painter Pierre Bonnard, a poster presenting champagne as a symbol of celebration, pleasure and joie de vivre.

Discover Wine and the Arts  >>

BANQUET AT A ETRUSCAN PRINCE
THOMB OF THE LEOPARDS
V° siècle av. J-C
Nécropole étrusque, Tarquinia, Italy
WILLIAM BANQUETING IN ENGLAND
Bayeux Tapestry, pannel 37 - Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux, France
DRINKING GAME
JEU A BOIRE
Joachim Friess, Allemagne, Augsburg, c. 1620 - Argent en partie doré, émaillé, socle avec joyaux et mouvement en acier et bois, 37,5 x 24,1 cm - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
JOIE DE VIVRE
France-Champagne Poster
Pierre Bonnard, 1891
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GALLERIES SOCIAL LIFE AND LIFE IN SOCIETY

With Friends
Cabarets & Ballrooms
Seduction and Love
Celebrations & Social Life
Political Life
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FEAST OF THE CHAMBER OF RHETORICIANS NEAR A TOWN-GATE Jan Steen, 1660s? - Private collection / 4