Little is known about the brief life and career of Isaac van Ostade, the younger brother and, according to Houbraken, the student of Haarlem’s master of the peasant genre, Adriaen van Ostade (see 1999.123.10, 2009.206 ). Although his career lasted just over a decade, Isaac developed a distinct style marked by a masterful incorporation of landscape into scenes of peasant life and a predilection for humorous representation of the lower classes.
Dated by Bernhard Schnackenburg to circa 1639–41, this drawing of children mocking a drunken woman represents the period immediately after Isaac’s apprenticeship, but before his first known activity as a professional painter, as recorded in the archives of Haarlem’s Guild of Saint Luke in 1643. Unlike in his earlier drawings, with their uniform use of the pen, diffuse compositions, and gruff peasant types, here he combines a more refined technique and a greater flair for theatricality to focus maximum attention on the hapless woman. The central characters appear in large scale, and the man in particular strikes an exaggerated pose, enhanced by a comical costume and facial expression. Descriptive detail diminishes toward the background, with abbreviated expressions on the broadly gesturing children and only a preliminary graphite sketch of foliage as a backdrop. The characteristically applied chalk washes attest to Isaac’s interest in color during this period, as he followed the lead of his brother, Adriaen, who had added watercolor to his drawings from the outset of his career.
Isaac treated the subject, an inebriated woman vomiting, with a moralizing sense of comedy. As William Robinson has pointed out, the theme relates to overindulgence and its negative consequences, thereby cautioning the viewer to avoid the antagonism and shame suffered by Isaac’s protagonist. The artist repeated this suite of figures in the foreground of one of his expansive painted landscapes, which last appeared in the New York trade (Fig. 1). In the painting, Isaac included the sharp shadows cast by the figures’ feet and expanded the dramatic light across the entire group, setting them off against a more muted landscape backdrop. He also altered the poses and costume colors of the figures slightly, especially in the central pair, to make the man’s jacket blue instead of red and the woman’s cape a drab brown instead of blue. Most importantly, Isaac omitted the spewing vomit central to the drawing—leaving more ambiguous the source of the woman’s ridicule. A drawn copy of Harvard’s sheet appeared in the Munich trade in 1941.
The drawing on the verso of this sheet is one of a small handful of Isaac’s rare early landscape studies. The tufty leaves and the schematic, rapidly drawn peasant house are typical of these sheets, as is the use of brown ink and wash. Isaac later refined this approach in subsequent masterful drawings of unpopulated exterior and interior scenes that show a more controlled use of the pen, greater level of detail, and frequent use of watercolor. His early compositional studies and landscapes, as embodied in the recto and verso of Harvard’s sheet, helped Isaac cultivate the mature paintings of exterior genre scenes for which he is best known.