Comical Canvases: Humour in paintings 1

Pere Borrell del Caso (1835-1910), Escaping Criticism (1874), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Private collection (Bank of Spain, Madrid). Wikimedia Commons.

It has been a long time since we’ve been able to see paintings in the flesh by visiting art galleries, at least here in the UK. But one thing I’ve noticed about them is how serious they are. Great paintings explore human emotions almost as well as music: if you’ve never wept at a painting, then you’re cold-hearted. Even writing these articles can become intensely emotional. But the least-felt of all is comedy or mirth.

Look back at the thousands of narrative paintings here, and you’ll see stories of love, lust, revenge, cruelty, murder, and more, but how often is their a joke? This weekend I’m going to show a selection of paintings which I think should raise a laugh. Not just because we could all do with lightening up, but because it’s a central problem for artists depicting scenes from my latest long read series of Cervantes’ Don Quixote, still one of the funniest novels of all time.

It wasn’t just that painters were miserable – far from it, if their biographies are anything to go by – or their patrons didn’t have a sense of humour. It’s just that telling a good joke in a painting seems difficult.

Not so for Hieronymus Bosch, though, several of whose works contain wonderfully humorous passages and scenes. My favourite in this respect is the exterior tondo for his triptych of The Wayfarer, from 1500-10.

Hieronymus Bosch (c 1450–1516), The Wayfarer (exterior of The Wayfarer triptych) (1500-10), oil on oak panel, 71.3 x 70.7 cm, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, The Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons.

Bosch’s traveller is thin and gaunt, and looks slightly anxiously towards the lower left of the panel. He wears ad hoc clothing for walking: a long-tailed jacket and trousers, with a soft cloth chaperon hat. His clothes are tatty, in need of repair, and a dull grey-brown. The right knee of the trousers has a large hole, and the left lower leg is pulled up above a dirty bandage tied around a wound in that leg. His footwear is odd, with a short black boot on the right foot, and a low, flat black ‘mule’ on the left.

Behind him, on the left of the painting, is a dog cowed and possibly growling towards him. Behind that is a sow and half a dozen piglets feeding at a small trough, and a couple of chickens. Behind the animals is a dilapidated building, which bears the sign of a white swan outside. In the doorway, a man is conducting negotiations with a woman. Another woman looks out from a broken window. At the left there is a bird in a cage, and at the right side of the building a man is urinating by a small fence. Gentle but pervasive humour that should bring a smile to the face.

Pieter Brueghel (or Bruegel) the Elder is another master of humour. Although only about forty of his paintings survive, among them is one of the most absorbing and funniest of all: his encyclopaedic collection of Dutch Proverbs (1559).

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Dutch Proverbs (1559), oil on oak wood, 117 x 163 cm, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin. Wikimedia Commons.
Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1526/1530–1569), Dutch Proverbs (1559), oil on oak wood, 117 x 163 cm, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin. Wikimedia Commons.

Here the landscape is so contrived and the figures so extraordinary in their activities that they demand our close attention. Armed with a compendium of Dutch proverbs of the day, the painting finally makes sense. Here’s just a small sample to whet your appetite.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Dutch Proverbs (detail) (1559), oil on oak wood, 117 x 163 cm, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin. Wikimedia Commons.
Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1526/1530–1569), Dutch Proverbs (detail) (1559), oil on oak wood, 117 x 163 cm, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin. Wikimedia Commons.

These figures represent:

  • to be armed to the teeth,
  • to be an iron-biter (boastful and indiscreet),
  • to bell the cat (being indiscreet about secret plans),
  • one winds off the distaff what the other spins (spreading gossip),
  • watch out that a black dog does not come in between (two women together do not need a barking dog to add to the trouble),
  • one shears sheep, the other shears pigs (one has all the advantages, the other none),
  • shear them but do not skin them (don’t press your advantage too far),
  • to be as tame as a lamb (very obedient).

His device is simple: to translate literally the words of each proverb into a small scene, to become visual absurdities.

True visual jokes are relatively uncommon, and my favourite is in one of Rubens’ finest mythological paintings, Juno and Argus from about 1611.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), Juno and Argus (c 1611), oil on canvas, 249 × 296 cm, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum & Fondation Corboud, Cologne, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

This shows the conclusion of the story of Mercury and Argus. Juno, wearing the red dress and coronet, receives eyes which have been removed from Argus’ head, and places them on the tail feathers of her peacocks. The headless corpse of Argus lies contorted in the foreground.

To alleviate what would otherwise be a gruesome scene, Rubens takes the opportunity for a visual joke, in which Juno’s left hand appears to be cupped under the breasts of the woman behind. This also happens to emphasise the plentiful arcs throughout his composition.

Jan Miense Molenaer (1609/1610–1668), Smell (1637), oil on panel, dimensions and location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Painted jokes became more common during the Dutch Golden Age, when you can imagine someone roaring with laughter at one of the paintings carefully gathered in their collection. A good example is the humour in Jan Miense Molenaer’s Smell from 1637.

Thomas Rowlandson (1756–1827), Reflections, or the Music Lesson (date not known), watercolour, 11.7 x 15.7 cm, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT. Wikimedia Commons.

Thomas Rowlandson was an astute observer of people and society, and his undated small watercolour sketch of Reflections, or the Music Lesson is an excellent example of his work, and another good visual joke. An old man sits in front of the fireplace, above which hangs a large mirror. This gives him a view behind of his daughter, who’s playing the piano as her music teacher sits close to her. That’s what we see: the image seen by the old man is of the couple embracing and about to kiss, which enrages rather than merely surprises him.

Maybe eighteenth century humour was a bit too chic and twee for my taste, but the nineteenth century changed that, as with so much.

Raphaelle Peale (1774–1825), Venus Rising From the Sea – A Deception (c 1822), oil on canvas, 74 x 61.3 cm, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, MO. Wikimedia Commons.

The American artist Raphaelle Peale’s Venus Rising From the Sea – A Deception (c 1822) was a humorous visual criticism of the smallminded attitude to the display of paintings of nudes at the time. Peale’s extra twist is that, rather than using a curtain, his nude is concealed by a handkerchief.

Eugène Lepoittevin (1806-1870), Approaching a Surprise (1852), media and dimensions not known, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

In 1852, Eugène Lepoittevin painted one of the pioneering ‘problem pictures’ which were to become so popular later in the nineteenth century. His Approaching a Surprise is also unusual for its wry touch of humour. A priest, his head buried in a book, is walking along a track. Just around the corner is a pile of clothing which clearly belongs to a woman, who presumably has just stripped off to bathe. Will the priest look up from his book at the wrong moment and see the surprise?

William Powell Frith (1819–1909), Pope Makes Love To Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1852), oil on canvas, 118 x 94.2 cm, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, Auckland, New Zealand. Wikimedia Commons.

William Frith’s satirical painting of Pope Makes Love To Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1852) is more cruel in its humour, I fear. This refers not to the Pope, but the British poet Alexander Pope, who fell in love with Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762) in about 1716. The couple are shown together, Lady Mary laughing at Pope’s amorous letters, and Pope looking away, quite terrified.

For sheer wit, coupled with the pun in its title and use of trompe-l’oeil Pere Borrell del Caso’s Escaping Criticism (1874) wins the day.

Pere Borrell del Caso (1835-1910), Escaping Criticism (1874), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Private collection (Bank of Spain, Madrid). Wikimedia Commons.

Its single figure climbs through the false frame as if it were a hatch, allowing them to move from the flat constraints of the canvas back out into the 3D world of the viewer.

Other paintings about painting have proved humorous too.

Giovanni Battista Quadrone (1844–1898), Every Opportunity is Good (1878), other details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Giovanni Battista Quadrone’s witty Every Opportunity is Good from 1878 shows a fashionable young couple visiting an artist in his studio. While the man sits studying what’s probably a portrait of his partner, and blowing his nose, the artist is making quite advanced advances towards the woman, who may not have been wearing as many clothes when she was posing for him.

Hans Andersen Brendekilde (1857–1942), L A Ring by his Fallen Easel (1883), oil on canvas, 78 x 67 cm, Det Nationalhistoriske Museum på Frederiksborg Slot, Hillerød, Denmark. Wikimedia Commons.

Hans Andersen Brendekilde here takes a humorous look at his friend L A Ring by his Fallen Easel (1883). Both of them had a struggle achieving recognition, and at this stage Ring was verging on abandoning art altogether as a result. He’s seen on the outskirts of a wood, looking down dejectedly at his easel, which has dropped paint-first onto the fallen leaves on the road. This would make a good caption competition, perhaps.

My last painting for today is another little-known classic, painted by Félix-Henri Giacomotti, a friend of William Bouguereau, in 1886, when nice young ladies still weren’t allowed to know anything about sex.

Félix-Henri Giacomotti (1828-1909), Forbidden Literature (1886), oil on canvas, 53 x 75 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Five young women have found their way into a private library containing Forbidden Literature, and are showing various signs of surprise and shock at what they have discovered and read there. They have then been surprised by the entry of an older woman, possibly their mother, who clearly wasn’t expecting to find them swooning over explicit content.