-- by Elise Mensing
The Dutch "Little Master" Cornelis Bega (1631/32-1664) produced Family in the Inn during the years 1660-1664. Bega was born in 1631 to a prosperous family in Haarlem. His father was a successful silversmith and woodcutter and his grandfather was the notable Dutch Mannerist painter Cornelius Cornesz Van Haarlem.
Bega is thought to have been a student of Adrian Van Ostade, one of the most well-known of the Dutch "Little Masters," who is also represented in this exhibition and who also specialized in intimate genre scenes of peasant life in 17th century Holland. Indeed, from Ostade, Bega most likely attained his particular interest in the daily antics of the peasant classes.
Bega also shared many stylistic traits with Ostade, such as his shift from multi-figured compositions in his earlier works to his later focus on more simple groupings of three or fewer figures. However, Bega's works were not merely a surface copying of his teacher's. The artist drew from his own artistic perceptions of Dutch culture, as well as the technological advancements in Baroque printmaking to create prints such as Family in the Inn, which display their own unique artistic qualities.
An initial examination of this print reveals traits that could be called characteristic of many works within the Dutch Baroque period, such as meticulous detail, tenebristic shading, the use of diagonal lines and an asymmetrical composition. Scrupulous attention to detail is found in Bega's descriptive marks on the peasants' garments and even in the variation in the grain pattern on the rough hewn wooden fence. Bega uses tenebrism, a strong contrasting of light and dark characteristic of Baroque art, to push the main subject matter into the foreground in order to draw the viewer into the narrative action.
The use of diagonal lines move the viewer's eye across the picture to take in such incidental details as the folds of the woman's dress, the crossed legs of the seated man, and the dark line of shadow curved behind the woman's back. An asymmetrical composition also provides visual interest and lends a sense of dynamic animation to the quiet grouping of figures in the dark shadowy interior of the rustic inn.
In first considering the subject of the print, one can extract various meanings behind the depiction of the small family in the tavern setting. As mentioned, Bega most likely took interest in peasant daily life from his teacher Ostade. The inn was a fast growing public institution during this period in Dutch history. While it had traditionally served as a humble center for peasant revelry, the neighborhood inn became a more proper meeting place for the newly developing members of the middle class during the mid-17th century, many of whom had risen from the peasantry. Both Ostade and Bega took interest in the colorful, compelling human activities that could be depicted inside these inns. Each artist expertly rendered the cavalier aspects of the peasant manner. However, in Bega's prints like "Family in the Inn," one notes that his peasants are much less decorous than Ostade's.
Where Ostade sometimes glamorized peasant costume and environment in his prints as a means to confer a sensitive dignity to the lower classes, Bega made a greater effort to portray the rough and simple reality of the peasant lifestyle. As mentioned, during the latter part of the 1600s in Holland, the peasant classes also gained in economic prosperity and social advancement. Bega's more naturalistic and anecdotal presentation of peasant scenes may have appealed to a more affluent peasant class, who sought to collect artistic images evoking a nostalgia for past cultural traditions associated with the idealized virtues of peasant life.
Another important aspect of Bega's peasant genre theme is it's emblematic meaning, since it may carry various moral implications. The triage of husband, wife and child is pictorially divided in half by the standing figure of the innkeeper, which may signify an emblematic content. The mother and child motif was a popular moralistic theme in Dutch Baroque art indicating domestic virtue, as well as moderation and stability within the family. The inclusion of the innkeeper, who inserts himself into the close-knit family grouping by offering the husband a drink, may pose a threat to this stability. Bega's seemingly direct observation of figures in an inn possibly suggests that alcohol, if not consumed in moderation, could threaten the domestic stability and purity of Dutch home life.
Another possible deeper meaning to this print can also be related to the subject matter of the family grouping. Father, mother and child could be an emblematic reference to the biblical theme of the Holy Family, particularly when considering their placement in an inn. Bega was believed to be Catholic, and the prevalent Baroque tradition associated with Counter-Reformation theology of evoking religious stories or meanings in the context of everyday settings may have been intended here. The possible moralizing emphasis on the dangers of the sensual indulgence of drink would have gained in meaning in relation to such an emblematic religious theme.
While the medium of printmaking was very prominent in Dutch 17th century art, Bega's etching represents a very experimental use of the medium. Etching allowed the artist a freedom of execution similar to applying pencil to paper. A notable feature of the print is the fact that the foreground of the etching is in an unfinished state. Perhaps Bega was modeling himself after Rembrandt, who would frequently leave prints in an unfinished state in order to display his working methods. The loose, sketchy quality of the etched lines also suggests Bega may have been emulating Rembrandt's techniques.
Another experimental quality to this particular print is the use of extremely dark tonalities. New, more efficient ways to achieve these dark tones became the focus of late Dutch Baroque print makers and resulted in techniques like mezzo-tint, in which the entire plate is incised with marks using a multi-toothed hatch-er. Although Bega did not use the mezzo-tint technique in this print, the extreme darks, especially in the upper left corner of the print, achieves the same dark inky quality and is indicative of the interest in broad, intensified areas of shading that led to innovative printmaking techniques in the 17th century like retroussage and mezzo-tint.
Bega's "Family in the Inn" is a modest scene of daily life. However, this essay has revealed that beneath the apparent simplicity of this diminutive print one can detect multiple layers of socio-cultural and emblematic meaning. Bega portrayed Dutch peasant life in such a masterful way that one is compelled to consider the complex, nuanced meaning of every mark and symbolic motif within his etching.