Adriaen Brouwer was born into the family of a craftsman. From his childhood, the future artist helped his father in the workshop and drew sophisticated patterns for future carpets. It is assumed that in 1621, he left Belgium, and documentary sources confirm the stay of Brower in Haarlem in 1626. In 1631/1632 the artist moved to Antwerp. In 1628, while in Holland, Brouwer took lessons from Frans Hals, in 1630 he was admitted to the Antwerp guild of St. Luke. In 1633, Brouwer was arrested by the Spanish authorities. The exact reason for his arrest is not known, perhaps he was arrested for participating in the Ghent uprising of 1631.
After leaving the house of his wealthy parents, the youth went to Holland, worked in Haarlem in the studio of F. Hals (c. 1623—1624) and in Amsterdam. At the end of 1631, he returned to Antwerp as a member of the painters guild of St. Luke. His short life was associated with the world of lowlife and Bohemia. In his last years, he lived in the house of the famous engraver P. Pontius, who collaborated with Rubens, who supported Brouwer financially. Brouwer always needed money, and Rubens bought his paintings. The great artist felt something much more than a challenge to the generally accepted in the works of the young painter.
In Holland, Brouwer mastered the art of creating small paintings from the everyday life of the lower classes of society, as well as tonal colour and the transmission of the light-air environment. He surpassed the Dutch painters not only with his brilliance of pictorial skill, but also with the boldness of his images that were not intended for edification or lean goodness. The genre paintings of the Dutchman A. van Ostade, who imitated him, seem naively simple-minded and bright-coloured.
In his small canvases, Brouwer usually depicted unpretentious scenes in gloomy squalid taverns, where peasants, poor people, vagabonds drank, played cards and dice, engaged into violent fights. His subjects are suffering from poverty, they are despondent, embittered people with dull faces. The unusual art of Adriaen Brouwer was not a historical accident in 17th century Flanders painting. It reflected the real shadowed sides of the life of Flemish society, followed the national Dutch tradition, the grotesque images of Brueghel the Elder. The image, which asserted itself in the painting of Flanders of the highest progress age, found a kind of opposite response, changed dramatically, asserted in his works. The jubilant fullness of life turned into daring recklessness, joyful gaiety gave way to bitterness and apathy, sublime beauty turned into ugliness. The images of Flemish painting seemed to soar above everyday life, whereas the Brouwer’s images sank to the bottom of life. The artist, although differed from his compatriots, still remained a Flemish.
Brouwer’s work is a rare example of a combination of grotesque and lyricism, the harsh truth of the subjects and picturesque beauty. Those features did not reveal themselves immediately. The unvarnished cartoon prevails in his early painting The School (Berlin, State Museums), where the overall image looks like a dump of gnome-like freaks. In many his works, the image uniformity and the characteristics straightforwardness are preserved. Placing a group of figures, which are usually located around a table or bench, in the foreground, the artist connects them with a common action, shows their changeable postures, turns, sharp gestures and mobile facial expressions (Argument over a Card Game, 1627, Munich, Alte Pinakothek; Peasants Brawling over Cards, Dresden, Picture Gallery; The Quarrel in the Game of Cards, Scene in a tavern, 1632, all in St. Petersburg, State Hermitage; Fighting peasants, Moscow, Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts; The Slaughter Feast, Schwerin, Kunstmuseum).
Smoking tobacco was prohibited in Flanders in 17th century, however, the ban was certainly violated in every possible way, smokers gathered in secret dens. A certain bravado is emphasized in Brouwer’s paintings on this subject. The protagonist of one such painting (The Smokers, c. 1637, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art) is a young smoker in the centre, possibly, a beginner. Eyes open round, he blows smoke from his wide-open mouth, and acts out a state of amazement and delight, which his companions mockingly observe.
The emphasized facial expressions especially attracted the artist in close-up images. The face is distorted by a grimace of pain, as in the scene of cruel home medicine, which becomes a test of the patient’s endurance (An Operation on the Shoulder, 1630), The Bitter Potion (1636—1637) causes a grimace of disgust (both in Frankfurt am Main, Städelsches Kunstinstitut).
At the same time, Brouwer created pictures, in which base passions seem to subside, the contemplative character, humour, and lyrical colouring of images are enhanced. Companies of drunkards and smokers talk peacefully, play balls, sing songs. In the Peasant Quartet (Munich, Alte Pinakothek), four men sing selflessly, mouths open funny, a fat peasant woman with a child warms up by the hearth. The picture captivates with human warmth and life’s truth.
Colourful solutions often present a contrast to the unpretentious, sometimes cruel prose of the subjects. In the scenes that take place in cramped taverns or at the street near dirty fences and shacks, a common light-air environment connects the figures, fore and background. Subtle transitions of light and shadow soften the shapes. The background, where everyday life goes on, is painted easily and transparently in grey-yellowish tones. The clothes of the foreground figures form harmonious colourful spots of faded delicate bluish, cream colour, pink shades. The Brouwer’s painting technique surprises with its artistry.
Over the years, the theme of loneliness is intensified in his work. The Self-portrait (The Hague, Mauritshuis) painted in the last years of his life is unusual for its time: a degraded person, indifferent to external decency, is full of a complex inner life.
Brouwer’s later landscapes are full of lyricism. Some of them are imbued with a sense of special intimacy, peace and tranquillity of nature. Others are dramatic and agitated. These are mostly night landscapes, lit by the uneven moonlight, which glides over torn clouds and trees rustling in the wind (Dune Landscape by Moonlight, Berlin, State museums); the lonely figures of vagabonds are anxious, the swift smear is restless. The artist’s landscapes stand alone in Flemish art, they resonate with Rembrandt’s landscapes in their expressiveness.
Only few could accept favourably Brouwer’s work in the 17th century.