MIERIS, Frans van, the Elder
(b. 1635, Leiden, d. 1681, Leiden)

Brothel Scene

Oil on panel, 43 x 33 cm
Mauritshuis, The Hague

Unlike a history painting, a genre picture does not generally refer to a written text. Its relation is to the popular, often crude and simplistic, metaphorical interpretation of the world. Genre picture, therefore, have a different structure from history painting, and that structure is one of their major characteristics. A history painting usually illustrates the decisive moment of the historical narrative to which it refers. For a genre painting, however, there never could be such a crucial moment: there was no story. A genre painting always presents a situation, which, through the introduction of key symbols, is reversed into a moral example.

This is examplified by the "Brothel Scene", which shows an interior with a rather coy lady pouring a smartly dressed young man a glass of wine. An elegant scene - until one perceives, farther back in the room, two dogs copulating. This crude and explicit detail associates the picture with a popular expression of Italian origin: "As is the lady, so is her dog." And another proverb, saying that beautiful woman and sweet wine are full of dangers, may also apply here. So what at first seems a harmless, attractive scene, is suddenly reversed when the viewer encounters an explicit symbol, often hidden in the background.