(b. 1593, Antwerpen, d. 1678, Antwerpen)

The King Drinks

Oil on canvas, 156 x 210 cm
Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels

This lavish depiction originates in the custom, at the Feast of the Three Kings (6 January), of proclaiming the person finding a bean hidden in his tart king for the evening and having him select his court from among those present.

In the middle, behind the festive board, laden with expensive dinnerware, waffles, pastries and wine, sits enthroned the king of the evening. We easily recognise the old man as Jordaens' father-in-law, the painter Adam van Noort. He raises his glass to his mouth, at which everyone loudly proclaims: "The king drinks!". To the right of the festive pig the court musician is enlivening the solemn moment with his bagpipes, and next to him his butler lifts wine jug and glass with a sweeping gesture. To the left the court fool responds by raising his lighted pipe. The boisterous reactions of the other guests show that they have already indulged heavily in food and drink. In the right foreground a mother has to clean her crying child. To the left a bragging man lifts his cap and can into the air, whilst a dog jumps up at the surrounding hullabaloo. The drunkard in the left foreground, in the process of vomiting, grabs giddily at the back of a chair, tipping a set of drinking vessels noisily to the ground.

Certain art historians have seen in this depiction of extreme merriment a turning away from such behaviour by a soberly inclined artist who had become a Protestant in later life. This interpretation may well be as unsatisfactory as the earlier reading of it as an ode to pleasure within the warm family circle, a concept so popular that it even founds its way onto biscuit tin lids. The surfeit to which Jordaens' figures are giving themselves over, but which is not really doing them much good, receives a somewhat ambivalent commentary in the cartouche in the top centre: "In een vry gelachllst goet gast syn" (where there is a free meal it is good to be a guest). A contradiction appears to exist between the message and the scene confronting us. Here the realisation that one should count oneself lucky not to have to pay the bill leads too far from pleasant excesses. Jordaens' presentation is therefore not free from a certain amount of irony.

© Web Gallery of Art, created by Emil Krén and Daniel Marx.