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Isack van Ostade  (1621, Haarlem - 1649, Haarlem)A Village Fair with a Church Behind1643. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015

LONDON.- From street vendors peddling food to singers performing to a crowd, a 17th-century Dutch painting in the Royal Collection captures all the rustic charm of a village fair. But work undertaken by Royal Collection Trust conservators ahead of a new exhibition opening at The Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace next month has revealed that all was not quite as it seemed. Painstaking cleaning of the painting has uncovered a squatting figure relieving himself in the foreground, hidden for more than 100 years under overpainted shrubbery. 

Painted in 1643, A Village Fair with a Church Behind by Isack van Ostade is one of 27 works going on display in the exhibition Masters of the Everyday: Dutch Artists in the Age of Vermeer. It was acquired in 1810 by George IV, when Prince of Wales, and hung in the Middle Room at Carlton House, the Prince's London residence on Pall Mall. Inventories of Carlton House in the Royal Archives show that the coarse, comic depictions of peasant life in A Village Fair with a Church Behind would have been entirely to the future king's taste. 

It is believed that the offending figure was painted over in 1903, when the work, which by then hung in the Picture Gallery at Buckingham Palace, was sent for treatment by an art restorer. The modified painting, perhaps now more in tune with Edwardian sensibilities, was returned to the Picture Gallery, where it hung for several more years. A similar alteration had been made to A Village Revel by Jan Steen, 1673, also acquired by George IV and in the Royal Collection. The painting shows a group of country people drinking and brawling outside an inn, symbolising human folly. Conservation revealed that the tavern sign was originally painted with an image of a man with his buttocks exposed, which at some point had been overpainted with a bull's head. 

Desmond Shawe-Taylor, Surveyor of The Queen's Pictures and curator of the exhibition said: 'Dutch artists often include people or animals answering the call of nature partly as a joke and partly to remind viewers of that crucial word 'nature', the inspiration for their art. Queen Victoria thought the Dutch pictures in her collection were painted in a 'low style'; two years after her death perhaps a royal advisor felt similarly'. 

Masters of the Everyday: Dutch Artists in the Age of Vermeer, opening on 13 November, brings together some of the finest 17th-century Dutch paintings in the Royal Collection, including 'The Music Lesson' by Vermeer. Created during the Dutch 'Golden Age', these works represent a high point in genre painting, ordinary scenes of everyday life rendered in extraordinary detail. Many of the works included humorous or moralising messages for the contemporary viewer to decode.

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Johannes Vermeer (Delft 1632-Delft 1675), A Lady at the Virginals with a Gentleman, 'The Music Lesson', c.1662-5. Oil on canvas, 74.0 x 64.6 cm (support, canvas/panel/str external). RCIN 405346. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015

A Lady at the Virginal with a Gentleman entered the Royal Collection in 1762 as a work by Frans van Mieris the Elder owing to a misreading of the signature. Indeed, the name of the artist was not correctly identified until 1866 by Théophile Thoré. During the late seventeenth century the picture had been in collections in Delft, Vermeer’s home town, including that eventually sold on 16 May 1696 by Jacob Dissous which had twenty-one paintings by the artist - the largest group of such works assembled by a single individual. A lady at the virginal was subsequently acquired by the Venetian artist, Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini, in 1718 either in Amsterdam or The Hague. Pellegrini’s collection was bought by Consul Joseph Smith, who in turn sold his own collection to George III. By such a route did one of the greatest Dutch pictures in the Royal Collection arrive and to a certain extent the initial oversight regarding its importance has been more than adequately compensated for by the amount of scholarly attention that it now receives. 

Paintings by Vermeer - of which there are only thirty-four - are difficult to date and any chronology has to be based on an interpretation of style and complexity of composition. A lady at the virginal was undoubtedly painted during the 1660s, but it is not possible to be more specific although there is at present a consensus of c.1662-4. The composition is characterised by the rigorous use of perspective to draw the eye towards the back of the room where the figures are situated - the young woman rather surprisingly seen from the back. The viewer is at first more aware of the jutting corner of the table, the chair and the bass viol than of the figures themselves, whose privacy is thereby protected. The back of the room, dominated by the virginal comparable with those made by Andreas Ruckers the Elder, is like a grid of verticals and horizontals into which the figures are carefully locked. Light is admitted through the windows on the left and fills the room, casting only soft, subtle shadows. A striking feature of the composition in this part is the mirror on the wall where the slightly blurred reflections include the young woman’s face, part of the table and the legs of an artist’s easel. The implication of this glimpsed easel is that Vermeer shares the same space as the figures he is depicting, but as a result of this artifice he is also, like the viewer, standing outside that space. In fact, as Alpers has observed, Vermeer’s composition is based on exclusion. Many of the elements, particularly at the back of the room, are seen only partially, as though indicating ‘the appearance of the world as ungraspable’. 

The inscription on the lid of the virginal, MUSICA LETITIAE CO[ME]S / MEDICINA DOLOR[IS], means ‘Music is a companion in pleasure and a balm in sorrow.’ It suggests that it is the relationship between the man and the young woman that is being explored by the artist, but what stage that relationship has reached is impossible to say. The fact that there are two musical instruments implies shared pleasures and a potential harmony, which is also indicated by the rapt expression on the man’s face as he listens to the young woman or sings as she plays on the virginal. That some aspect of love is the presiding theme can be deduced not only from paintings by Vermeer’s contemporaries, such as Metsu, but also by the presence in A lady at the virginal of the picture of Roman Charity (Cimon and Pero) by Dirck van Baburen on the wall in the background on the right. This is the story of how the imprisoned Cimon was nourished by his daughter Pero, symbolising the ideal of Christian charity both physically and spiritually. It is known that Vermeer’s mother-in-law, Maria Thins, owned such a painting and Vermeer did use another painting by this artist in the background of two of his other pictures. The vase on the table is placed below Roman Charity and so with regard to that picture may be an additional correlative for the young people in the room. 

The mood of the present interior by Vermeer is created as much by the careful selection of so few objects as by the confrontation of the two figures in whose plight, in the words of Lawrence Gowing, ‘there rests, as gentle as the air itself, an allegory of liberty and bondage, an allegory, as the inscription informs us, of the pleasure and melancholy of love’.

Signed on the bottom of the frame of the painting on the extreme right: IVMeer (IVM in monogram)

Catalogue entry from Royal Treasures, A Golden Jubilee Celebration, London 2002

Provenance: Jacob Dissius before 1696; acquired c.1718 by Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini, probably in the Low Countries; bought in 1742, possibly from Pellegrini's widow, by Joseph Smith, from whom bought by George III in 1762

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Gabriel Metsu (Leiden 1629-Amsterdam 1667), The Cello Player, c.1658. Oil on canvas, 62.9 x 48.2 cm (support, canvas/panel/str external). RCIN 405534. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015

A young woman descends a staircase dangling a page of sheet music from her right hand. She looks down at a young man tuning a cello. He is seated in front of a spinet and rather incongruously wears a hat. Above is another young man looking on at the proceedings from an arched landing. The young woman’s pet dog greets her at the bottom step. Close examination supported by technical evidence indicates that the artist changed his mind about the decoration on the wall immediately above the spinet. At first he placed a picture in that area, the right half of which included a nude figure while the left half may have been concealed by a partially drawn curtain. He then painted this out by applying a thin layer of grey pigment, but a later restorer misread this passage for a hanging map such as that appearing in The Listening Housewife by Nicolaes Maes (Royal Collection). This visual confusion has since been corrected.

The subject of The Cello Player is love: the choreographed poses of the two figures, the emphasis placed on the shared pleasures of music, and the presence of the dog are the usual ingredients of such a scene. The disconsolate observer, whose pose is traditionally related to melancholy, is perhaps a frustrated lover. The underlying sense of dalliance, so knowingly portrayed in the somewhat languid entrance of the young woman into the room, would also have been underscored by the painting hanging above the spinet if the artist had chosen to retain it.

Signed on the sheet of music held by the girl: 'G. Metsu'

Catalogue entry adapted from Enchanting the Eye: Dutch paintings of the Golden Age, London, 2004
 

ProvenancePurchased by George IV from Sir Thomas Baring as part of a group of 86 Dutch and Flemish paintings, most of which were collected by Sir Thomas’s father, Sir Francis Baring; they arrived at Carlton House on 6 May 1814.

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Willem van Mieris (Leiden 1662-Leiden 1747), The Neglected Lute, c.1708. Oil on panel, 47.2 x 38.8 cm (support, canvas/panel/str external). RCIN 405543. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015

The subject of this painting is one in which Dutch painters were well versed by the beginning of the eighteenth century, when The Neglected Lute, which was acquired by George IV with the collection of Sir Francis Baring, was painted. A direct comparison can be made with the paintings by Gerard ter Borch and Gabriel Metsu, although A lady at the virginal with a gentleman by Vermeer (Royal Collection) is also pertinent. The scene is one of seduction, combining the pleasures of taste, love and music in a suitably grand interior. The man is encouraging the woman to drink whilst her lapdog barks at the black servant entering the room through an arch. The oysters - recognised for their aphrodisiacal qualities - are moist and delicately coloured. The decoration in the room includes some fictitious sculpture, almost a trademark for Willem van Mieris, comprising a statue possibly of the young Bacchus and a relief of gambolling putti. Great care has been lavished on the texture of the various surfaces - the sheen of the silk-satin; the fibres of the carpet; the reflective qualities of silver, glass, wood and mollusc. Above all, there is the theatrical treatment of the light that not only picks out the principal figures, but also creates a feeling of recession into the shadowy background. There is an almost operatic feel to the intensity of highlight striking the underside of the looped curtain at upper left that is reflected across to the cushion covering the stool on the right. 

Van Mieris painted variations on this theme, including The lute player of 1711 in the Wallace Collection, London. He reused the models in other compositions: the man in Children’s Games of 1702 in the Wallace Collection and the girl in a number of pictures, including An old man and a girl at a vegetable and fish shop. It is possible that the male model is a self-portrait of the artist. 

Catalogue entry adapted from Enchanting the Eye: Dutch paintings of the Golden Age, London, 2004

Provenance
Purchased by George IV from Sir Thomas Baring as part of a group of 86 Dutch and Flemish paintings, most of which were collected by Sir Thomas’s father, Sir Francis Baring; they arrived at Carlton House on 6 May 1814.

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Jan Steen (Leiden 1626-Leiden 1679), A Woman at her Toilet. Signed and dated 1663. Oil on panel, 65.7 x 53.0 cm (support, canvas/panel/str external). RCIN 404804. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015

The painting is an outstanding example of Jan Steen’s art in all respects. The elaborate treatment of subject-matter reveals a profusion of references that would have been readily recognisable to his contemporaries, attesting to the painter’s intelligent use of symbolism.

A young woman is shown partially undressed, with an unlaced jacket, putting on a stocking. A lapdog lies on her unmade bed, by which there is a chamber pot, and her shoes are scattered on the floor. The figure is alluring and looks straight out at the viewer with an inviting expression. Seduction is her intent. The viewer, however, is kept out of the room itself, which lies beyond an imposing arched doorway imbued with classical features. Two columns with Corinthian capitals rest on bases decorated with cartouches, whilst the arch itself is adorned with swags and a weeping cherub. There is a marked and deliberate contrast between the interior and the exterior, to the extent that this is clearly to be read as an allegorical painting. 

The arched doorway is a threshold that no sensible person should cross, however strong the temptation. The arch represents moral probity emphasised by the symbolism of the sunflower (constancy), the grapevines (domestic virtue) and the weeping cherub (chastised profane love). Once in the room, the viewer is confronted by a host of vanitas objects: a lute with a broken string, a skull intertwined with a vine, a candle with the flame extinguished, and a jewellery box with its lid wide open. These all signify the transient effects of misdirected sensual pleasure. Even the act of pulling on a stocking had a clear message which is found in the emblem book by Roemer Visscher, Sinnepoppen (1614): namely that impetuous behaviour such as pulling on a stocking too quickly could result in its being holed, just as yielding to sensuality could lead to ruin. Steen implies that to pass through the arch would be to risk the loss of virtue. There is, therefore, a sense in which the interior amounts to pagan love and the exterior to spiritual love. 

The artist’s ingenuity does not end with the images, but extends to word play: the Dutch word for stocking (kous) used as slang meant fornication and the Dutch word for chamber pot (piespot) used in conjunction with kous (i.e. pieskous) was in slang a pejorative word for women. Similarly, to appreciate the significance of the artist’s signature on the column it is necessary to realise that 'steen' in Dutch means 'stone'.

On a technical basis, the quality of the painting is remarkable for the treatment of the light, particularly in the room itself, and in the meticulous depiction of the still-life objects (the bed, the floor, the ceiling, the chandelier) and the foreshortening of the door.

Signed on left-hand column: JSteen (JS in monogram) and dated on right-hand column: 1663

Catalogue entry adapted from Enchanting the Eye: Dutch paintings of the Golden Age, London, 2004
 

ProvenanceAcquired by George IV in 1821 

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Adriaen van Ostade (Haarlem 1610-Haarlem 1685), The Interior of a Peasant's Cottage. Signed and dated 1668. Oil on panel, 49.1 x 41.2 cm (support, canvas/panel/str external). RCIN 404814. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015 

The interior of a peasant’s cottage is one of van Ostade’s greatest paintings. It is in complete contrast with those representations of bourgeois figures by artists such as de Hooch or Metsu. Having begun by focusing on the rowdiness and boorishness of peasants, by the 1650s van Ostade had chosen to develop a more sympathetic depiction of peasant life. Here he shows a mother holding up a doll for her child to play with, watched by a doting father. An older child eats from a bowl on a stool, closely observed by a dog. The eye then begins to take in all the other details of family life strewn across the floor - the shopping basket, the laundry basket, the children’s elaborate chamber pot, the broom, various games, the walking frame. The light comes through the latticed windows on the left, as in van Ostade’s earlier picture on a similar theme. At the top an open window suggests that it is summer; it is echoed by the open cupboard door. This is a spacious composition combining a successful application of perspective that leads the eye back into the deeper recesses of the room, tonal nuances that create a sense of atmosphere, and an extraordinary accumulation of realistic detail. The range of objects painted by van Ostade in order to re-create this peasant interior is formidable. The concentration of light on the principal figures is such that only gradually does the viewer realise that there are other figures in the shadowed recesses of the room.

Van Ostade’s composition is reminiscent of The Holy Family by Rembrandt (Louvre, Paris) of 1640 and further knowledge of Rembrandt is displayed in van Ostade’s etching of a peasant family of 1647. As in Rembrandt’s works, it is van Ostade’s powers of empathy that bring great distinction to a painting such as The interior of a peasant’s cottage, and in many respects collectors in the eighteenth century regarded van Ostade’s achievement as comparable with Rembrandt’s. It was his degree of realism that impressed artists and collectors of the nineteenth century, although from that moment his reputation began to decline. The painting was in the Smeth van Alphen collection in Holland in the early nineteenth century and was acquired by George IV in 1811.

Signed and dated over the fireplace on right: Av. Ostade/1668 (Av in monogram)

Catalogue entry adapted from Enchanting the Eye: Dutch paintings of the Golden Age, London, 2004
 

ProvenanceP.de Smeth van Alphen, his sale, Amsterdam 1810; bought P.J.Lafontaine, his sale, Christie's, 12 June 1811 (59); but apparently bought privately by Lord Yarmouth for the Prince Regent; received at Carlton House 13 June 1811

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Frans van Mieris the Elder (1635-81), A Girl Selling Grapes to an Old Woman, c.1655. Oil on panel, 44.0 x 35.4 cm (support, canvas/panel/str external). RCIN 406607. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015 

A Girl Selling Grapes is an early work by van Mieris, dating from the mid- to late-1650s. It is to be presumed that all the produce shown in the picture has been grown on a smallholding and is being sold by the girl from her wheelbarrow on a house-to-house basis. Such compositions can be found in the work of Dou (The Herring Seller of 1654 in the Alte Pinakothek, Munich) and Metsu (The Herring Seller in the Musée Fabre, Montpellier, and Old Woman selling Fish of c.1660, Wallace Collection, London) where the models are also very similar. It is unlikely that there is any allegorical meaning in the picture, although the different kinds of fruit and vegetable are no doubt intended to refer to the fertility of the Dutch soil and the development of horticulture. 

Signed lower left: 'F.v. Mieris'

Catalogue entry adapted from Enchanting the Eye: Dutch paintings of the Golden Age, London, 2004
 

ProvenanceIn France during the eighteenth century, in the Choiseul collection (when engraved), Prince de Conti, d’Arveley, and Calonne collections. Purchased by George IV from Sir Thomas Baring as part of a group of 86 Dutch and Flemish paintings, most of which were collected by Sir Thomas’s father, Sir Francis Baring; they arrived at Carlton House on 6 May 1814.

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Pieter de Hooch (Rotterdam 1629-Amsterdam 1684), A Courtyard in Delft at Evening: a Woman Spinning, 1657. Oil on canvas, 69.3 x 53.7 cm (support, canvas/panel/str external). RCIN 405331. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015

This is a precious record of a moment when De Hooch and Vermeer were both working in Delft evolving a distinctive style; the evidence of dated works (like this one) suggesting that De Hooch was making the running. De Hooch's reputation was certainly enhanced by the 'discovery' of Vermeer in the 1860s, but he was already a sought-after name in the time of George IV: the two paintings by him in the 1819 Carlton House inventory were both correctly attributed and impressively valued (CW 85, 405951 at 700 guineas; this one at 400 guineas).

A Courtyard in Delft, acquired by George IV in 1829, is one of de Hooch’s earliest treatments of the theme, dated 1657 on the evidence of a signed and dated copy (Private Collection). It is also one of the most atmospheric in the portrayal of the shadows filling the foreground. Thus, de Hooch contrasts the seated figure seen in shadow with the standing figure who is walking from the sunlight into shadow. On the vertical axis there is a similar shift from the bright blue sky overhead to the darker tones in the lower half.

The viewer is invited to enter what is essentially a private world. Both women are preoccupied by their simple domestic tasks. Even so, this private space partakes of a more public context. On the right beyond the house can be seen two towers: the taller one that of the Nieuwe Kerk (New Church), where William the Silent, the founder of the Dutch Republic, is buried, and the smaller one that of the Stadthuis (Town Hall). Another important feature of A courtyard in Delft is the close observation of the buildings, both as regards the materials from which they are constructed and the tonal relationships (especially the reds) of their silhouetted forms. Most convincing is the patchy distribution of the whitewash on the brick and the different types of mortar and pointing seen in a varying light. The gabled house flanking the tower of the Nieuwe Kerk can be made out in other courtyard paintings by de Hooch, adding to the sense that the artist devised his compositions within a tightly knit area that he knew intimately.

Signed lower left corner: 'P.D. HOOCH'

Catalogue entry adapted from Enchanting the Eye: Dutch paintings of the Golden Age, London, 2004
 

ProvenanceAcquired by George IV in 1829

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Ludolf de Jongh (Rotterdam 1616-Hillegersberg 1679), A Formal Garden: Three Ladies Surprised by a Gentleman, c.1670-79. Oil on canvas, 60.1 x 74.75 cm (support, canvas/panel/str external). RCIN 400596. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015 

De Jongh is best known for courtyard or garden scenes, closely resembling the late work of Pieter de Hooch. This is a perfect demonstration of the way in which prosperous Dutch merchants became aristocrats in the latter part of the century, especially after the French invasion of 1672. There is a similarity between this palace garden and its occupants and those depicted in moralizing scenes at the beginning of the century, such as Steenwyck's Figures on a Terrace (Royal Collection). The main difference is that de Jongh's figures are not 'Spanish Brabanters' but an equally parodied type, which replaced them towards the end of the century: imitators of French fashion. Furthermore, the palace gardens of Steenwyck and his contemporaries were imaginary and impossible, whereas the present one may be imaginary, but is certainly possible. This is the kind of country house, built in the classical style and with a rectilinear formal garden, which became fashionable after the construction of the Huis ten Bosch ('House in the Woods') near the Hague in 1645-55, the royal summer palace and sort of patriotic shrine to the Stadtholder, Frederick Henry of Orange.

There may be something similarly patriotic here, for this scene does not seem to be mocking courtly indolence in the same way that Steenwyck (and others) did. The garden is designed like a fort, with high hedges defended by a magnificent replica of the Borghese Gladiator, catching the evening sun. This perhaps expresses the heroism of the aristocratic owner who, we are lead to imagine, protected the Dutch Republic and made it safe for Dutch maidens to gather roses like the Three Graces. The man here wears a sword, which is much less common for civilians in Holland during this period than it was in other countries, where it was the ubiquitous badge of a gentleman. He starts forward so abruptly that his hat has fallen off; is he coming to protect or to steal a kiss from the women? This is a 'gallant' scene; the word, as universal in European languages as 'conversation', has two meanings exactly describing this combination of arms-bearing courage and attentive courtship depicted here.

Text adapted from The Conversation Piece: Scenes of fashionable life, London, 2009
 

ProvenanceAcquired by George IV before 1806

 

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Gerrit Dou (Leiden 1613-75), The Grocer's Shop. Signed and dated 1672. Oil on panel, 48.5 x 35.3 cm (support, canvas/panel/str external). RCIN 405542Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015

Dou was born at Leiden. He was a pupil of Rembrandt from 1628 until the latter moved to Amsterdam, probably in 1631. Dou rarely travelled outside Leiden, although he was invited to England by Charles II. He was a genre painter and founder of the school of the so-called fijnschilders (fine painters). His style was greatly admired and his work was much sought after in his own day. A number of pictures, for example, were sent to Sweden for the collection of Queen Christina. His reputation lasted into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The Grocer’s Shop by Dou is a late work, warmer in tone, richer in colour and more expansive in style than A girl chopping onions (Royal Collection), painted nearly thirty years earlier. Dou had first essayed this theme in 1647 (Paris, Louvre). Its origins lie in sixteenth-century market scenes undertaken by artists such as Joachim Beuckelaer and Pieter Aertsen, but Dou here combines several of his favourite motifs, particularly his desire to create a pictorial illusion. The scene is incorporated within a stone arched window with a ledge. Below is a sculpted relief of children playing with a goat, in the style of François Duquesnoy. The same relief occurs in The Poulterer’s Shop (National Gallery, London), which is close in date to the present painting. Although Dou uses an illusionistic device, he in fact distances the viewer from the scene by positioning objects in the foreground and on the ledge. There is, too, a strong sense of narrative, which is not limited to the two principal figures, but extends to the background where a woman (looking directly at the viewer) holding a coffee pot is about to leave the shop, whilst behind her another customer is being served. At this late stage of his life Dou does not differentiate his brushwork so that all the textures are treated evenly - including the impressionistically rendered curtain on the right. 

The type of shop that Dou depicts is eminently respectable and indicates the great success that the Dutch nation had in trading. Market stalls and pedlars still existed, but shops put commercial transactions onto a more formal basis and Dou’s compositions have a distinctly domestic feel to them, as though a deliberate extension of the home. The Dutch economy can be seen here at work. He has depicted a general store that sells eggs, dairy products, bread and meat products. There are also exotic goods that show how open the Dutch economy was to imports. The lemons on the ledge are on a blue and white oriental ceramic dish; there are sponges hanging in the arch; and special confections are in a jar on the ledge. At the centre of the arch are poppies used for making syrup, but also associated with apothecary shops. There is in all of this a sense of changing fashion and an opening up to French influence detectable in the style of dress, as well as in the choice of comestibles. 

Inscribed lower right: 'GDOV [GD in monogram] 1672'

Catalogue entry adapted from Enchanting the Eye: Dutch paintings of the Golden Age, London, 2004
 

Provenance: Comte de Choiseul, Paris, by 1754; Choiseul-Praslin sale, Paris, 1793; bought Paillet; purchased in Paris by William Buchanan, 1817; Thomas Thompson Martin, from whom purchased by the Prince Regent, 21 June 1817.

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Willem van Mieris (Leiden 1662-Leiden 1747), An Old Man and a Girl at a Vegetable and Fish Stall. Signed and dated 1732. Oil on panel, 38.7 x 32.0 cm (support, canvas/panel/str external). RCIN 405946. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015

An old man and a girl at a vegetable and fish shop by van Mieris was acquired by George IV in 1805, and is a ‘niche’ composition as developed by Dou. The same illusionistic devices are used here - the stone arch with a ledge and a sculpted relief below with a looped curtain in the arch. Similarly, the artist destroys the illusion by placing objects in the immediate foreground. Immense effort has been lavished on rendering the textures of the different goods on display: dried herrings, gingerbread, walnuts on the ledge; mushrooms and dried fish suspended on either side of the arch; golf clubs and apples in front of the ledge; with additional fruits and gingerbread figures within the shop itself. The painting of the different types of baskets, metal containers and fabrics is a virtuoso display of pictorial skills. A touch of humour is provided by the rat (invisible to the figures in the shop) munching away at an apple at the lower edge, and human interest by the old man and the young woman who engage in their own private dialogue. Even if the brandishing of the clay pipe has erotic overtones, the old man’s gesture indicating the weights on the ledge is difficult to interpret. 

The sculpted relief is reminiscent of that used by Dou in several of his compositions and recurs in other paintings by Willem van Mieris - for example The Dairy in the Staatliche Museen, Kassel, of 1705 and The Grocer’s Shop in the Mauritshuis, The Hague of 1717. Another relief of tritons and nereids was also used by the artist (see, for example, A woman and a fish-pedlar in a kitchen, 1713, in the National Gallery, London). Since Willem van Mieris is known to have made designs for reliefs, it is likely that he used his own imagination rather than copying specific examples. 

It has been suggested that The Greengrocer in the Wallace Collection, London, might have been a pendant to the present picture. 

Signed and dated top left corner: 'W. van Mieris Fect Ano 1732'

Catalogue entry adapted from Enchanting the Eye: Dutch paintings of the Golden Age, London, 2004

Provenance: Acquired by George IV when Prince of Wales in 1805