Satirical paintings with monkeys, so-called singeries, were popular during the 17th century in Flanders. This popularity should be seen against the contemporary political and military context.
Our painting copies in mirror view the left hand-side of a composition of 1633 by David Teniers II, the elder brother and most probably the master of our Abraham Teniers: a cat that has not respected the curfew orders is arrested at night by monkey soldiers.
About Abraham Teniers
Antwerp 1629 – 1670 Antwerp
Painter of genre scenes, also of tapestry designs.
Son of David Teniers I (1582 – 1649) and brother of David Teniers II (1610 – 1690). Abraham must have studied under his brother, who moved in 1650 from Antwerp to Brussels..
Member of the Antwerp Painter’s Guild of Saint Luke from the year 1645/46 onwards. He remained active in Antwerp all his life.
Abraham was court painter of the great lover of art Archduke Leopold Wilhelm (1614 – 1662), Governor of the Spanish Netherlands. Abraham’s brother, David II was, besides being another one of his court painters, also the keeper of the Archduke’s collection of pictures (now at the Kunsthistorisches Museum of Vienna).
About monkey tricks
“Singeries” or monkey tricks were a popular subject in Flemish painting during the 17th century and later in French Rococo painting during the 18th century.
Comical scenes with monkeys behaving like humans had been introduced in Flemish art by the Renaissance engraver Pieter van der Borcht the Elder (circa 1530 – 1608) around 1575 in a series of prints.
Typical of the Flemish monkey scenes is their sense for satirical humour, often with a moralizing tendency, criticizing the monkeys’ and therefore man’s (stupid) behaviour and his sense for social hierarchy.
Later in French painting these subjects got, typical of the Rococo period of course, a more decorative and less sharp meaning, often in combination with Chinese decors.
I should also mention in applied arts the famous porcelain monkey orchestras produced in Saxony, Germany, at the Meissen factory from around the middle of the 18th century onwards.
The popularity of these singeries in Flanders is of course historical: Flanders was since the Middle Ages one of the richest regions of Europe, but it had been in the hands of foreign powers. Mild forms of satire and sense for “surrealism” were a second nature for our writers and artists.
About our painting
One may wonder about the satirical meaning of a cat being arrested by monkeys during night-time. Clearly he had not respected the curfew regulations. Was it a horny cat looking for a female companion or a hungry cat looking for mice? Whatever the reason cats, just like the contemporary 17th century civilian population, suffered under the dubious behaviour of the military.
It might seem rather surprising to us that, long before Darwin, painters turned to monkeys imitating man’s basic behaviour. Since Antiquity monkeys were considered stupid animals who, with their eyes wide open, are merely copying human foolish behaviour, without actually understanding it: monkeys and cats were vain animals driven by their instincts. Notice how the cat and the monkey officer are nicely dressed.
Our painting is clearly inspired (in mirror view) by the right hand side of a larger singerie composition by David Teniers II, dating probably of 1633, which is part of the Dutch State Collection of Visual Arts.
Both that singerie set in a guardroom and another singerie, a monkey feast set in the open air, dated 1633, were depicted in Teniers’ view of his workshop, dated 1635. It is thought that both singerie paintings date from that very same year of 1633.
The military context of these singeries should be seen against the contemporary political background. Until 1648 the Eighty Years’ War was fought, which one may call the Dutch war of independance from Spain.
This was a long, slow war that lasted from 1568 until 1648. The war started of as a Protestant uprising in Flanders and in Holland against the Catholic Spanish Habsburg. It ended with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648: Spain recognized an independent Republic of the Seven United Provinces, Holland, while Flanders remained Spanish.
The War can be divided into four phases:
- 1568 until circa 1600: this period ends with Prince Maurice taking a lot of towns from the Spaniards.
- 1609 – 1621: the Twelve Years’ Truce.
- 1621 – 1625: important Spanish successes, for example the fall of Breda in 1625, six weeks after the Dutch Stadtholder Prince Maurice died.
- 1625 – 1648 : the new Stadtholder Frederick Henry besieged town after town, a relatively slow system that paid of well. The Dutch were lucky: while Spain was regularly in great need of money, with soldiers and mercenaries that could not be paid, they had captured under Admiral Piet Hein the famous Spanish silver fleet in Cuba in 1628. All this money could now be used for the war.
An offensive and defensive treaty sealed with France in 1635 proved to be very successful and finally forced Spain to accept peace with an independent Dutch Republic: the Treaty of Westphalia or Munster of 1648.
Guardroom scenes become an important subject in Dutch, and also in Flemish painting. In French a guardroom is called ‘un corps-de-garde’, which in Dutch evolved towards ‘een kortegaerden’.
Attributions of unsigned monkey scenes are extremely difficult.
A lot of 17th century Flemish monkey trick paintings are attributed in full to Ferdinand van Kessel (Antwerp 1648 – 1696 Breda) who is known to have painted regularly apes. But not a single signed singerie is known by him. Still, based on stylistic comparison with other subjects some of them may indeed be given to van Kessel.
Personally I attribute our painting to Abraham Teniers, because being a pupil of his brother David II, he must certainly have been influenced by him and by his compositions
Why should you buy this painting?
Because it is a typical, rare Flemish 17th century satirical subject of painting, set against the contemporary military, historical context.