A Barn Interior with Peasants carousing
Hendrick Martensz. Sorgh
Signed and dated, lower right: M. Sorgh / 1641
Oil on panel, 23⅞ x 33¼ ins. (60.5 x 84.5 cm)
From an old private German collection, Stuttgart, until 2019
An accomplished and versatile painter, Hendrick Martensz. Sorgh specialised in peasant interiors and market scenes, but from time to time he also turned his hand to small-scale portraits, marines and history pieces. Sorgh’s peasant interiors belong to a distinctive tradition of low-life genre that had taken root in Rotterdam by the mid-seventeenth century. In common with other Rotterdam painters of this period, Sorgh’s peasant scenes reflect the influence of the Flemish masters Adriaen Brouwer (1606-1638) and David Teniers the Younger (1610-1690).
A jolly group of peasants relaxes in a barn-like interior in this fine, early painting by Sorgh. Six of them are gathered round a table, drinking and smoking. The fellow on the left, dressed in blue and sporting a wide-brimmed hat, engages the viewer in a direct gaze, while his companion on his left raises a glass of wine on high as if toasting the assembled company. On the other side of the table, a smoker looks on, amused, while a young woman playfully resists the advances of a young man in a red cap. A shadowy figure sits by an open fire behind. In the right foreground, a cat and a dog fight over scraps on a plate, and further back, an amorous couple retreats, arm in arm, to the rear of the barn. The rustic interior is furnished with crudely-made furniture and an array of homely objects. Standing in the foreground is a small table on which rest an earthenware jug, a brazier of coals, a clay pipe and a crumpled white cloth. Suspended from nails driven into the beams are a string of onions, a lantern and a basket containing a roosting hen. A large wooden barrel, a collection of earthenware vessels and a copper pan fill the corners of the room: a broken pipe and a crumpled piece of paper lie on the floor.
This type of scene has its origins in the barn and stable interiors developed in the early to mid-1630s by the brothers Cornelis Saftleven (c. 1607-1681), and Herman Saftleven (1609-1685) in Rotterdam and David Teniers II in Antwerp. Typically, the composition of these works is divided into two distinct parts: one half of the picture is dominated by a large still life of everyday objects, arranged before a partition or wall placed parallel to the picture plane, while the other half is given over to a genre scene of figures and/or animals. In some of Sorgh’s early genre scenes, for example, his Interior of a Farmhouse, in the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, in Rotterdam (i), he adheres closely to this formula, but in this painting of 1641, the artist has modified the standard scheme, giving greater prominence to the main figural group and integrating more fully the beautifully rendered still-life elements into the scene. Although A Barn Interior with Peasants carousing is one of Sorgh’s earliest dated works, it represents already a mature statement of his art. Characteristic of his distinctive personal style are the well-modelled figures, the sense of spaciousness and the palette of warm brown tones, enlivened with accents of clear blue and red.
Peasants smoking and drinking in a barn or tavern was a popular theme in seventeenth-century genre painting. In some such scenes a deeper meaning lies hidden although the symbolism might not be immediately apparent to the modern viewer. In depictions of everyday life, the actions of ordinary men and women are often employed to illustrate the vices and virtues of mankind and commonplace objects can take on a moralising significance. However, as the century advance such moralising became generally less strident and it is often difficult to judge whether or not an artist intended a particular scene to serve as a moral lesson. Whilst in the seventeenth century smoking and drinking were considered minor vices and associated with idleness, here, Sorgh’s portrayal of peasants indulging in a few modest pleasures displays no strong attitude, either positive or negative, towards the actions of his protagonists, rather his main concern seems to be to characterise his subjects and capture a typical moment of seventeenth-century life. On the other hand, such motifs as the still life of a broken brazier and a pipe placed prominently in the foreground, and the broken clay pipe lying on the floor would have carried vanitas connotations that reminded the contemporary viewer of the transience of human existence. Similarly, the spat between the cat and a dog may very well have been of significance to the audience of the day.
Hendrick Maertensz. Sorgh, who also signed his works “Sorch” and “de Sorch” was born in Rotterdam. His precise date of birth is unknown, but a self-portrait of 1645, inscribed “Aet. 34” (age 34), puts it at around 1611, whereas, a document of 1646 states that his age was “approximately thirty-seven”, indicating an earlier date of 1609. According to Houbraken (ii), his father Maerten Claesz. Rochusse (or Rokes) was a ferryman who delivered goods from Rotterdam to the market in Dordrecht. “He always took such care with his consignment and deliveries” that he was affectionately known as “Zorg” (meaning careful), the name which his son adopted. Hendrick’s mother Lysbeth Hendricks was from Antwerp, and was his father’s second wife. Houbraken also claimed that Sorgh studied with the Antwerp painter David Teniers and Willem Buytewech of Rotterdam, but this seems improbable since the latter died in 1624, Sorgh must have been very young when he joined his studio. In 1630, Sorgh drew up a Will in Rotterdam and, in 1633, he married Ariaentge Pieters Hollaer, a merchant’s daughter and sister-in-law of the Rotterdam painter Crijn Hendricksz. Volmarijn, who bore him at least five children. By 1636 or 1637 he was a master in the Guild of St. Luke in Rotterdam and had a pupil, Pieter Nijs of Amsterdam: his nephew, Pieter Crijnse Volmarijn and Cornelis Dorsman were later students.
Sorgh was a man of means and a prominent figure in the community. In 1637, he bought a house on the Steiger, called “Het Vrouwehoofd”, for a considerable sum. A document from the following year describes Sorgh as “ferryman between this town and Dordrecht”, a similar position to that held by his father, but probably in an honorary capacity. His appointment to the honorary municipal post of broodweger (bread weigher) in 1657 and brandmeester (fire chief) in 1659, together with his appearance in 1646 at a rabbit hunt in Vlaardingen with the Sheriff of Rotterdam, prove that he enjoyed some local eminence. In 1654, the artist was commissioned by the city of Rotterdam to restore a portrait of Erasmus and, in 1669, he was named a hoofdman of the Guild of St. Luke. The year before he died, he bought a flower garden on the Schiekade. He was buried at the Grote Kerk on 28 June 1670 (iii).
i Henrick Maertensz. Sorgh, Interior of a Farmhouse, panel, 46.5 x 68 cm, Museum Boymans-van
Beuningen, Rotterdam, inv. no. 2174.
ii Arnold Houbraken, De Groote Schouburgh, 1718-21, vol II, pp. 89-90; vol. III, p. 244.
iii Biographical information based upon the biography by Jeroen Giltaij in the exhibition catalogue Senses and Sins: Dutch Painters of Daily Life in the Seventeenth Century, Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam & Städelsches Kunstinstitut und Städtische Galerie, Frankfurt, 2004-2005, p. 117.
Hendrick Martensz. Sorgh
1611 ? Rotterdam - 1670
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