• France, Private Collection.
On a beautiful summer’s day in the village square, a huckster in once elegant clothing that is now patched everywhere, vaunts some miraculous product, perhaps rat poison, to the inhabitants. Made of boards, his stage resembles a boat which floats over the crowd with a sail in the form of a large engraving which explains in great detail the effects of the potion, and for a mast, the charlatan’s large drum rattle, and for a cabin boy, a tame monkey attached to a chain. Promises, certificates of all types, and the picturesque figure of the man himself attract mostly children who leave their games to watch the spectacle, but they also attract peasants with glum expressions, credulous idlers, a woman with her basket of provisions and a curious turbaned traveler.
Our folio lies within the genre tradition begun by Pieter Brueghel the Elder and largely developed by Dutch painters during the Golden Century. Peopled with decent folk in unrestrained poses and vulgar mimics, laughing, dancing, getting drunk in the joyful ambience of markets, taverns, and village festivals, these images stand out in contrast to the distinction and dignity required of history painting. If some flirted willingly with caricature, others sought to capture natural expressions, poses, and aspirations with a comic or moralizing purpose, a fact which explains the considerable success these subjects had with a bourgeoisie clientele.
Painter, draughtsman, and engraver, Dusart was the son of the organist of Saint-Bavon in Haarlem. In about 1675, he became an apprentice to Adriaen van Ostade (1610-1685). In January 1680, the Haarlem guild received him as a master. Twelve years later, he was elected Doyen of the corporation for a year. Like his master, Dusart specialized in depicting daily life of peasants and simple people. His first works, limited to imitation, attest to Van Ostade’s strong influence. When his master died, Dusart recuperated the studio’s entire holdings, including certain unfinished paintings and drawings which the former student took care to complete.
In addition to Van Ostade, the artist was inspired by Jan Steen (1626-1679), who lived in Haarlem in the 1660’s and was famous for his comic scenes. Dusart owed him the humor and exaggerated theatricality of a good number of his works. The artist also drew certain subjects, such as swindlers and other figures, from his elders. Thus the little boy with the hoop in our drawing can be recognized in Van Ostade’s Charlatan painted in 1648, while the smooth-talking huckster recalls that painted by Steen in about 1660 (Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, inv. SK-A-387.) Similarly the arched format and the pyramidal composition concentrated in the lower half evoke the elegant creations in a completely different style by Gerrit Dou (1613-1675), notably his Quacksalvar dated 1652 (Rotterdam, Boijmans van Beuningen Museum, inv. ST 4).
Dusart’s Drawing Style
Before the end of the 1680’s, Dusart moved away from his predecessors’ artistic schemas to give free rein to his own personal vivacity and keen sense of observation. This burlesque expressiveness which constitutes the originality of his manner is best seen in his graphic work, and especially in his wash drawings. Very developed, they were perfectly independent of his painting production and intended for sale. They were famous both during the artist’s lifetime and after his death: Jan van Gool, the author of Dusart’s biography which appeared in 1751 thus noted that his folios were “appreciated by art collectors who conserved them very carefully.” It’s not impossible that our work may be the “charlatan at a village fair by Cornelis Dusart,” which figures in the post-mortem inventory, dated August 30 1722, of Maria Justina Kraij, wife of Samuel van der Lanen the Younger, Alderman of Haarlem. This rich family’s collection included an impressive number of paintings by great masters as well as framed drawings.
Featuring brown wash, our folio is mainly constructed by means of vigorous chiaroscuro which intensifies and dramatizes the scene. Dusart passes a brush over an initial composition traced with a fine feather pen. Large white areas left in reserve form light which falls on the platform, ground, and figures gathered around the charlatan and illuminate the façade of the house in the background. The artist then takes up his pen again to accentuate a detail with a few strokes, such as the ghostly face of the man who appears in the window, the skirt stripes of the little girl, or the dead rats attached to the drum rattle.
Our Charlatan is to be compared to other drawings Dusart produced in the same “brown” technique which featured figures still influenced by Van Ostade, such as A Shopkeeper in front of his Boutique playing the Horn (British Museum, inv. 1910.0212.136), Peasants and Children at a Cock Fight (Jean Bonna collection), and Hurdy Gurdy Player which he signs with two names, his and that of his master. The similarities with the artist’s engravings dating from the second half of the 1680’s, such as the Violin Player in an Inn, 1685, and the series of Five Senses in a mezzotint – a process which he was one of the first to practice and in which the technique resembles wash – make it possible to date our drawing to the same period.
General Bibliography (Unpublished Work)
Irene VAN THIEL-STROMAN, “Cornelis Jansz Dusart,” Painting in Haarlem 1500-1850. The Collection of the Frans Hals Museum, Gand, Haarlem, 2006, pp. 144-145.