Man Pissing by David Teniers; an Amsterdam story

This tavern scene by David Teniers the younger (1610 – 1690) is coming up for sale at Koller Auctions in Switzerland this month, where it’s the highlight of their Old Master sale on the 19th.

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 Men Smoking and Drinking in a Tavern (c) Koller Auctions

Teniers was extremely popular and much-copied, from his own lifetime well into the Nineteenth Century. The Koller painting shows how well-drawn and lively he is. The copies tend to be grotesque and heavy, lacking the delicate colour and rapid, sketchy characterisation of  the originals. Teniers was an elegant, court painter and it shows.

The subject was a popular one in Dutch art, and Men Smoking and Drinking in a Tavern echoes this subject by Teniers’s contemporary Adriaen van Ostade (1610 – 1685), published as an engraving by John Boydell in 1779. I used to have this print. I wish I still did actually.

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Boors Drinking after A. van Ostade (c) Christ Church Art Gallery, New Zealand

It’s interesting to see how similar the setting is in each of them – the hogshead barrel cut in half to make a table, with the china pipe-tray and draped napkin. Both paintings show portrait caricatures tacked up on the wall, suggesting that one of the regulars is an artist. Teniers has dated the drawing in his painting, 1677. Ostade’s is likely to be earlier by at least a decade, so perhaps there is a degree of conscious echo.

It wasn’t til I saw the Teniers though that I realised what the fifth figure in the background of the Boors Drinking print is doing. He must be pissing into – I hope – a bucket. I used to think he must be pulling the cork out of a wine bottle.

I’ve seen that exact subject before. A long time ago I was in Amsterdam, walking back to the hotel past a picture dealer’s window one night. There was a 1640s-ish double portrait standing on a plinth inside. The lights were off and most of the painting was in shadow, but in the streetlights I could just make out delicate Vandyckian roses to one side. I went back the next day. The portrait wasn’t by Van Dyck, but another painting grabbed my eye.

It was propped up on the floor against the plinth, as if it had only just come in, a small panel, shaped like a letter box on its side. It was almost opaque with thick, old varnish but you could just make out that it showed a man pissing in the corner of a tavern, like this right-hand figure in the Koller painting.

Teniers detail - man pissing

Men Smoking and Drinking (detail)

The dealer appeared from his office at the back, so I asked him about it. He said it was by a follower of Teniers, 5,000 Guilders (about £1,800). Just at that moment another man came in from the street, a bearded man in a dark overcoat, like a character from Tintin. He saw what we were looking at and came over. He said he knew the painting. It was by Teniers himself. It had been published, and there was a signature on it somewhere.

It was like an attributional thunderbolt, the moment of crisis. Any moment it might turn from a sleeper into a bona fide autograph painting. If I wanted it I would have to seal the deal now. It was so tempting. But I couldn’t of course. I didn’t have 5,000 Guilders on me. The bearded man left as swiftly as he’d arrived and I gave the dealer my details. I asked him to send me an image. He never did, and I left him in his shop, standing in the door of his back office peering at the painting under a strong light.

When I told Dad about it, he thought it must have been a con, an elaborate sting to make me stump up 5,000 Guilders then and there. It seemed too much of a coincidence for the bearded man just to come in at that moment, and know the painting’s history.

It would be a lot of effort to rip off someone who looked like a backpacker. But there was something mysterious about it all, as I’d set a machine in motion by walking through the door. Like the old penny slot machine on the harbour at Brixham, The Haunted House. It was a little model of a room behind glass, and when you put your 2p in, lights flashed, a ghost appeared behind the sofa, the cupboard door opened with a skeleton inside and the window curtains opened to show a devil at the window, all with the slow jerkiness of worn clockwork. Then it all wound back to normal and the lights went out. Either way Dad was right to be cautious. Coincidence works best when it’s bolstered by expertise. I’m not sure I would’ve been able to tell a real Teniers from a copy back then.

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