The Twelve Years’ Truce (1609–21) recognized the de facto independence of the United Provinces of the Dutch Republic, providing a respite from five decades of destructive civil unrest and warfare in the Low Countries. The truce enabled the free expansion of the maritime trade that transformed the small nation into Europe’s greatest commercial power and enabled the rapid development of a prosperous mercantile class.
Artists satirized and celebrated the dissipations of the Republic’s nouveaux riches in “merry company” scenes, which emerged as a discrete theme in Dutch art during the second decade of the seventeenth century (Fig. 1). The most inventive exponent of the merry company was the painter, draftsman, and etcher Willem Buytewech, nicknamed Geestige Willem (“Witty William”) for the cleverness and originality of his work.
Buytewech’s wit and innovative technique combine brilliantly in this trenchant study of a fashionable swell, one of approximately twenty ink-and-wash drawings of elegant, stylishly dressed young men that he made in Haarlem around 1614–17. The animated contours, sketched with vivid, fluid pen work, and the freely brushed but precisely calculated washes capture the bravura stance and smug expression of this impressive dandy, whose arrogance and affectation are enhanced by the low viewpoint and his splendid outfit. While the tall, narrow formats of the figure studies, the swaggering poses, and the emphasis on the clothing relate them generically to Buytewech’s set of seven costume prints, Noblemen of Different Nations, not one of these drawings served as the direct model for a plate in that series of etchings. Nonetheless, the purpose of the studies was undoubtedly to record the latest fashions for reference when composing finished works of art. Buytewech adapted one of the figures in a painting of around 1616–17 (see below), while other drawings in the group provided models for artists in his circle, such as Dirck Hals and Jan van de Velde.
The artist’s largest figure study in this technique, the Harvard drawing must also be one of the latest. The complex pose, low point of view, and handling of the media relate it closely to a signed work (now in the Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum in Braunschweig, Germany) that the artist used for a painting of about 1616–17 (Figs. 1, 2). Moreover, the pose of the model in the Harvard study resembles, in reverse, that of the gentleman at the right of the painting Genteel Courtship, which can be dated to about 1616–17, as well as that of the prodigal son in Buytewech’s drawing The Prodigal Son Receives His Inheritance, datable to around 1615–19.