It is thanks to the signature, written out in full and placed prominently on a pewter jug, that we are able to identify this company of men who are smoking, drinking, and making music, as a work by the virtually unknown Gregorius Oosterlinck. The manner in which Oosterlinck signed his work is suggestive of a self-assured artist who must have produced a substantial oeuvre; yet only one other painting by him is known. The artist is clouded in obscurity: where he was born and where he lived, his dates of birth and death, who taught him and whether he had any pupils of his own: answers to all such questions are mere conjecture. A portrait print of a man with long wavy hair, with the name ‘Gregorius Oosterlinck’ may possibly be a likeness of this mysterious master (fig. 1), but the print’s provenance and function – did it belong to a series of artists’ portraits? – are unfortunately a blank. At present we have only a single documented reference to his name during his lifetime – in the archives of the St Luke’s Guild in Ghent. This tells us that Oosterlinck (spelled ‘Osterlinck’ there) was active in this city in 1652. How long he lived in Ghent is unknown, but the Tavern interior with soldiers merrymaking around a table may have been painted there; the figures’ clothing dates it to c. 1660.
In a large format, using wide brushstrokes, Oosterlinck painted six figures against a dark background. Our eye is immediately drawn to the man on the right, who wears a yellow costume, blue sash, and a knotted neckerchief in red and white bands of colour. The rich decoration of his sword, its hilt fashioned into a seated griffon, is an attractive detail. The man smokes his pipe with an absent-minded expression; the remains of his tobacco and the sticks he has used to light the pipe lie on the table before him, on a pewter plate. A dog is sniffing around in search of crumbs. A man to the smoker’s left who has just drained his wine glass is being closely watched by a waggish figure with a red cap – the way this man is wedged in between the two seated figures accentuates his pushy attitude. The youngest man at the table is playing the fiddle, and even appears to be singing along. The man on the far left, who wears a loose brown cloak, holds his wine glass elegantly by the foot, as he looks up at an old woman who is attracting his attention by placing a hand on his shoulder. The woman may be the innkeeper, but more probably she is a procuress, trying to tempt him to spend his money on a prostitute.
Oosterlinck crowded the figures into the picture plane. Yet despite this proximity, there is a striking lack of interaction between them. Possibly this is because of their separate symbolic meanings, since the painting may well be intended to personify the five senses. In this case, the old woman and the man stand for Touch, the fiddler for Hearing, the drinking man for Taste, the peering man for Sight, and the smoker and dog together for Smell. Merry companies of this kind, making music, smoking, drinking, or playing cards around a table, sometimes representing the five senses, constituted a popular subject in seventeenth-century painting in the Netherlands. We often encounter this motif in the first half of the century – with a peak in the 1620s – among artists who had spent a few years in Italy, where they had been introduced to the work of Caravaggio and his followers. It is in particular the Utrecht Caravaggists, with leading lights such as Gerrit van Honthorst (cat. XX-XX) and Hendrick ter Brugghen (cat. XX) who are among the best-known and most influential exponents of this style, which spread throughout Europe. Artists producing Caravaggist works were also active in the Southern Netherlands, in artistic centres such as Antwerp, Brussels, Ghent, and Bruges. The best-known are Abraham Janssens (cat. XX), Theodoor Rombouts (cat. XX), and Gerard Seghers (1591-1651), but there were many others, who are less well known (and studied). In many cases, little of their oeuvres has survived, making research on these masters very difficult. This certainly applies to Gregorius Oosterlinck, a late representative of Flemish Caravaggism.
Because of the Caravaggist nature of A tavern interior with soldiers merrymaking around a table, reflected in the choice of subject, the warm palette, and the depiction of half-figures filling the picture plane, it is usually assumed that Oosterlinck must have worked in Italy for a time. This is not necessarily the case, however; he may have drawn sufficient inspiration from the work of other masters who had undertaken this journey. The only other known work by Oosterlinck (fig. 2) is suggestive of the influence of Jacob van Oost the Elder (1601-1671). In fact it was once attributed to this Bruges master, partly because the signature is damaged and poorly legible. This painting too features a company around a table, and here too we see a woman on the left placing her hand on a man’s shoulder. A similar figure occurs in the oeuvre of Van Oost, in which she approaches a young man either as a procuress or a soothsayer (fig. 3). This youth in turn resembles the boy on the far right in Oosterlinck’s work (fig. 2). Perhaps the artist also worked in Bruges and became acquainted with Van Oost’s oeuvre there. The more refined technique in which this company is painted also puts one in mind of Van Oost’s figures, and is indeed different from the wide brushstrokes of the work in the Kremer Collection. It is scarcely possible to carry out a good stylistic comparison of the two works, since the other painting’s whereabouts have been unknown since it was auctioned in 1985.
The scant available information concerning the life and work of Oosterlinck are indicative of a connection with Ghent and possibly also with Bruges. Hope now rests on the possibility that archival research in these cities may shed light on this as yet mysterious artist.