-- by Kathryn Koca
Adriaen van Ostade (1610-1685) was one of the more prosperous "Little Dutch Masters" in the Baroque era, who perfected his artistic skill in the industrial and influential artistic center of Haarlem. As a young man, his father urged and supported Ostade's love of art, and thus placed him in the hands of the already established Frans Hals. Under this Dutch master, he and fellow artist Adriaen Brouwer perfected the theme of naturalistic genre scenes, which sought to capture everyday life in 17th century Holland. However, Ostade found more inspiration in Brouwer than Hals, which is evident in his stylistic approach and imagery. Haarlem influenced this aspiring artist as well, through its flourishing economy and large textile industry. Living in this thriving environment made Ostade appreciate the picturesque rural landscape surrounding Haarlem and the diverse social life within the city. Alongside artists such as Johannes Vermeer, Jacob van Ruisdael and Jan Steen, Ostade depicted the complex cultural scene of Haarlem through the multifaceted theme of everyday life, particularly the humble, low-life diversions of the peasant classes.
In the canon of genre painters throughout Holland, Steen and Ostade are quite similar in their view of Haarlem society. Steen learned artistic skills under the hand of Ostade, and both focused on the idle pursuits and simple sensual pleasures associated with peasant life. While Steen tended to focus on the growing materialistic pride and economic prosperity of the Dutch working class, Ostade stressed the humble dignity of the Dutch peasant. Typical of the Baroque period, Ostade concentrated on the empirical view of everyday pleasures associated with peasant life. Interestingly, the figure of the peasant metaphorically served in Ostade's works as moralizing emblems, since Ostade incorporated satire and allegory into the images of the peasant to express his dissatisfaction against the elitist bourgeois. His etching "Beggar in a Large Coat" (1647) can be interpreted as exemplifying his anti-bourgeois sentiments.
The completed print presents stylistic techniques characteristic of Ostade's etchings, which enliven the figure of the beggar. While focusing solely on the disheveled figure, Ostade applied a detailed study of physiognomy and sure confident strokes that made the peasant figure type identifiable. He prepared these etchings and drawings rather formulaically and quickly. He occasionally developed his etchings through several successions of states, but this print in particular may have only undergone one bite, or a single acid bath. As a printmaker, Ostade progressed through a series of stylistic periods in his technique. A concentration on sketchy, curving strokes and hooks and dots are found in prints from 1647 to 1652, hatchings and crosshatchings became prominent during the years 1653 to 1654, and from 1671 to 1679 the hatched line tends to be more rigid and simpler. His earlier etchings are also more concerned with painterly textures, fine tonal relationships, and atmospheric values, while the later prints contain a greater emphasis on contour drawing and strong contrasts that enforce a sculptural solidity. "Beggar in a Large Coat" dates from this first stylistic phase and displays a loose sketchy stroke in the folds of the figure's coat and in the hat's crumpled shape. In addition, the contour of the beggar's body and its expressive posture is described with a fluid hatching. In addition to a personal repertoire of techniques, Rembrandt influenced Ostade's approach to shading, which can be seen in the dramatic pattern of light and dark used to convey the three-dimensional qualities of the figure.
Many interesting and thought provoking ideas have been presented concerning the meaning of Beggar in a Large Coat. With his somewhat slouched stance, the beggar's pose perhaps serves as a comical contrast to the more ideal and refined posture favored by elitist and artificial bourgeois standards of proper behavior and bearing. It is possible the beggar's pose reflects a belief in the virtues of the simplicity and modesty of the peasant classes' more natural comportment. Although Ostade himself was a member of the more prosperous bourgeois artisan class in Haarlem, his sympathetic treatment of peasant figures may reflect a growing trend in 17th century Holland to adopt a more charitable Christian attitude towards the lower classes and to view them as a positive, accepted part of Dutch society. Indeed, the slightly elevated position of the figure which is even to the beholder's gaze implies a view of the peasant that is accepting and not superior.
Other aspects of the beggar's depiction have also been debated by art historians concerning the exact social commentary on the peasant classes. For example, the beggar stands with his arm conspicuously tucked into his crumpled coat. Ostade's teacher Franz Hals had popularized this idle hand motif in representations of Dutch fisher boys. The hand concealed in the jacket had served in Dutch Baroque art as a common attribute condemning the disenfranchised beggar, implying either a scratching of lice on the unkempt body or as a corrupt tendency towards idleness and sloth. However, in keeping with a more purely Dutch empirical fascination with social phenomena, it should be noted Ostade's beggar is depicted with both his arm in a sling and the other hand concealed in his coat. The detail of a maimed or crippled figure with a concealed hand also served in Dutch society as a cultural indicator of the lower class beggar, reflecting a fascination with the diversity of social types and the various attributes of gesture and dress used to characterize different economic strata. As Linda Stone-Ferrier has observed, Ostade's figure does not have other identifying traits of the lowly suspect beggar, such as tattered clothing or a crutch. In fact, the figure's apron and vest-like garment may also indicate an injured shopkeeper or artisan. Moreover, the concealed hand motif was also used to connote the figure of a philosopher, who did not indulge in physical labor. Therefore, since the figure lacks a narrative context or moralizing inscription, it cannot be automatically assumed Ostade intended the slouched, inactive figure to be an emblematic, moralizing critique of the Dutch peasant.