About 1601, Jacques de Gheyn left Leiden and settled in the Hague. After the move he gave up engraving and did not undertake new print publishing initiatives, but he remained active as a draftsman and designer of prints. This spectacular sheet served as the model for an engraving attributed to Andries Jacobsz. Stock and published by Nicolaes de Clerck in Delft around 1610 (Fig. 1). The contours have been incised for transfer to the plate, and the print reproduces the design in reverse and bears an inscription that identifies De Gheyn as author of the composition. Although usually regarded as roughly contemporaneous with Stock’s engraving, the drawing may date from several years earlier.
The Latin and Dutch verses in the print elaborate obliquely on the sexual imagery of the scene. In sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Dutch art and literature, milkmaids had a reputation for easy virtue, and this saucy peasant woman, having donned the crossbowman’s hat, assists him in aiming his bolt, which is conspicuously aligned with his distended codpiece. In the meadow, the same couple embraces intimately, although there the archer wears his own hat. The Dutch couplet admonishes women not to be deceived by men “who are always taking aim.” Not one to heed this advice, the milkmaid speaks in the Latin verses, encouraging the crossbowman to “aim your bow with tautened string, so that you strike what is swollen squarely with the point. / Behold, I support your elbows with both hands / So that, while aiming, you can say all the more assuredly: / ‘A maiden, too, gives good advice.’” As Leo Wuyts argued in a study that attempted to decode the double entendre of her words, the artist’s contemporaries presumably grasped their frankly erotic allusions more readily than we do.
The archer depicted head-on and aiming at the viewer served an admonitory function in northern European art long before De Gheyn adapted the figure to a comic context, and the artist was not the only one of his time to do so. In a print by Pieter Serwouters after a design by David Vinckboons, a kneeling crossbowman points his weapon at us while an owl defecates from a tree. We, the bowman’s quarry, know that the owl has targeted him, but he remains unaware of it. The same Dutch couplet inscribed beneath Stock’s engraving after De Gheyn appears under the etching by Serwouters: “Beware of him who is always taking aim, / That you are not deceived by his bow.” The erotic charge of De Gheyn’s composition does not figure in the Serwouters etching, but does inform a drawing from the circle of Vinckboons, which incorporates many of the same elements. A crossbowman—kneeling, as in Serwouters’s print—aims at the viewer, while a milkmaid with her yoke and pails stands behind him and lovers embrace in the landscape beyond. The drawings by De Gheyn and from the circle of Vinckboons, as well as the print by Serwouters, all belong to the first decade of the seventeenth century, but none are precisely datable. Neither the similarity of their imagery nor the appearance of the same inscription in the prints by Stock and Serwouters can be coincidental, but we do not know which of these works preceded the others.
A freely executed De Gheyn sketch now in Berlin resembles the Harvard drawing, but its date and function are uncertain (Fig. 2). Here, a woman in bourgeois dress stands close behind the archer and holds up a wine glass, while a dog sniffs the ground at his feet. The substantive differences between the compositions make it unlikely that the Berlin sketch is a preliminary study for the Harvard sheet. It is probably a (somewhat later?) variant.