DUYSTER, Willem Cornelisz.
(b. 1599, Amsterdam, d. 1635, Amsterdam)

Soldiers beside a Fireplace

c. 1632
Oil on panel, 42 x 47 cm
Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia

During the second quarter of the 17th century a group of artists began to specialize in painting the life of soldiers. Scenes of plunder and battle were depicted but the ancient battle of sexes, where the field of action was a room in an inn or a barrack, and in which the outcome of the struggle is not much in doubt, was more frequently represented. Other popular subjects were soldiers drinking, smoking and gambling at cards or tric-trac, activities that contemporary predicants and moralists condemned as vices that endanger salvation. But it is doubtful if the painters of these scenes and their clients viewed them as pictorial reminders of the perils of sin and the inexorable need to lead a virtuous life. Pictures of the life of off-duty soldiers were called by the Dutch 'cortegaardjes' a corruption of the French term 'corps de garde'. The better ones show little movement or overt action. Painters of them had a special feeling for tonal values and their pictures take on a certain still-life quality. In their half-dark interiors the light glitters over uniforms, and a fine subdued play of colours, mostly broken and harmonized by delicate half-tones, betrays the Dutch gift for intimate pictorial qualities and a subtle rendering of textures. Some even anticipate the achievement of the high society painters of the following generation, when well-to-do burghers rather than soldiers and their friends became the favoured subject of genre painters. Specialists in this category worked in Amsterdam, Utrecht, Delft, but seldom in Haarlem. The leading ones in Amsterdam were Willem Duyster and Pieter Codde.

What sets Duyster's rare pictures apart from those made by his contemporaries is his distinct chiaroscuro and the refinement of his colours. He was also better able than any of them to convey the fascinating visual drama which can take place when people do little more than confront each other. It is difficult to think of a painter of his time who surpasses his penetrating characterization of the personalities of the men gathered round a fireplace in the modest nocturnal scene in the Soldiers beside a Fireplace in the Philadelphia museum. (Versions are also in the Hermitage, and in Düsseldorf.) Duyster's approach is always original. His cortegaardjes and small pictures of dignified full-length single figures seen against dark backgrounds served as one of the points of departure for Terborch's great accomplishment in these branch of painting.