Adriaen van Ostade specialised in peasant scenes: he depicted peasants drinking and making merry or fighting in taverns, simple peasant families, market pedlars, and musicians. Throughout his career, besides such scenes of this kind with numerous figures he also produced small paintings of a single figure, so-called tronies of men (and an occasional woman) laughing, drinking, or smoking. This oval painting depicts a man with a broad grin, his humble origins apparent from his rough apparel, tousled hair, and his cap worn at a casual skewed angle on his head. Van Ostade has painted this figure with his characteristic loose brushstrokes, which are well suited to the cheerful, informal nature of the subject. The paint has been applied so thinly that the grain of the wooden panel is clearly visible.
Adriaen van Ostade was born and bred in Haarlem, as the son of a weaver. His younger, talented brother Isack (cat. no. 48) also became a painter, after an initial period of apprenticeship in Adriaen’s studio. According to the painters’ biographer Arnold Houbraken (1660-1719), Adriaen van Ostade himself trained with Frans Hals (cat. no. 21) at the same time as Adriaen Brouwer (cat. no. 10). This must have been around 1627, when Brouwer – who came from Antwerp – was living in Haarlem. Van Ostade became a member of the local St Luke’s Guild in 1634, serving the guild in a variety of official capacities in the years that followed. For instance, in 1647 he was appointed as a head of the guild, and it may have been to mark this festive occasion that Hals painted his dignified portrait of the younger artist. Whether or not Van Ostade was one of Hals’s pupils, his development was unquestionably influenced by the older master. But while Hals primarily made his reputation as a superb portraitist, Van Ostade devoted himself mainly to paintings, drawings, and prints of peasant scenes. Brouwer too excelled in this genre, and the work of the two artists displays many similarities, in choice of subject matter as well as painting technique.
Van Ostade’s early work is more monochromatic in tone than his later paintings. In addition, the peasants in his earliest tavern interiors are more caricature-like than his figures from around 1640. The undated Laughing man can be dated to the 1640s, when Van Ostade produced a number of similar tronies. The small painting is closely related to a dated work from 1642, which is now in the collection of Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam (fig. 1). There too we see a laughing peasant with long, tousled hair, dressed in virtually identical clothing and also sporting a hat set askew on his head. What is more, this man is painted on an oval panel with virtually the same dimensions as the work discussed here. It is quite possible that A laughing man, like the similar work in Rotterdam, originally had a companion-piece. For the Rotterdam painting is one of a pair of pendants: a laughing man with a more serious figure as its counterpart. Perhaps this Laughing man also had a pendant depicting the opposite mood.
With his Laughing man, Van Ostade was working in a tradition that in any case leads back to another painter of peasant life: Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c.1526/30-1569), some of whose peasant tronies have been preserved. Bruegel’s name has also been linked to a series of 36 prints of peasant heads in small ovals, in which the tronies were linked in pairs. The captions state that these prints were based on designs by Bruegel, but whether or not he actually contributed to them is unclear. It was a popular series in any case, since a second series was published, consisting of twelve copies in reverse image after prints from the first series. Brouwer is named as the maker of these peasant tronies, but it has since been demonstrated on stylistic grounds that he had nothing to do with them. Be that as it may, the prints were widely disseminated in the seventeenth century, and it seems likely that print series of this kind served as a source of inspiration for Van Ostade. But while the tronies in these prints are exaggerated caricatures, Van Ostade chose to give his Laughing peasant a good-natured appearance. It is this more natural style that led Houbraken to assert, in the following century, that no one ever depicted peasant scenes as ‘humorously and naturally’ as Van Ostade, a humorous quality that this Laughing man exemplifies.