Nenagh Hathaway

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Figure 1

The Drinker / The Bitter Draught

Workshop of Adriaen Brouwer (Flemish 1605/6-1638)

The Drinker / The Bitter Draught, c. 1635-1638

oil on oak panel on oak cradle

34.3 x 27.1 cm

Gift of Herman Levy, Esq., O.B.E., 1984


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Purchased from Brod Gallery, London, England, 1970

Herman Levy, Esq., O.B.E.


Exhibition History

The Herman H. Levy Collection, McMaster Museum of Art, Togo Salmon Gallery, 11 June 1994 – 9 November 2006

Levy Series, Northern Art in the Age of Cock, Durer, Rubens & Rembrandt, McMaster Museum of Art, Levy Gallery, 10 May – 25 August 2007

The Last Things Before the Last, McMaster Museum of Art, Levy Gallery, 24 May – 18 August 2012

Worldly Possessions: Visualizing Ownership in the Age of the Baroque, McMaster Museum of Art, Levy Gallery, 27 August 2013 – 25 January 2014

This painting presents a compelling expression of revulsion. The man contorts his face, reacting to the taste of the liquid in the small glass vessel he clutches. His disgust is palpable; it is almost possible for us to hear his roar of displeasure and to taste the “bitter draught” that he sips. The painting is attributed to Adriaen Brouwer, an artist known for depicting his subjects—usually peasants in taverns or inns—with strong facial expressions. Brouwer’s own life had no shortage of dramatic events including a stint in prison, possibly related to debt issues. His self-portrait in The Smokers (Fig. X)—he is the figure in the central foreground—might support the argument that Brouwer’s own experiences provided the basis for many of his paintings.

Several other versions of The Bitter Draught (sometimes referred to as The Drinker) exist,[i] attesting to the popularity of this composition. The McMaster painting may have been part of a series of the senses, as might the other versions of this image. Although unusual as a representation of taste, which is more traditionally shown as a group of figures eating food at a table, the McMaster painting is an immediate and powerful expression of a very human reaction. One of the other versions is housed at the Städel Museum in Frankfurt (Fig. X). The Städel painting, which measures 47.4 by 35.5 cm, includes Brouwer’s monogram “AB” on the right side of the panel, a feature that is missing from the Hamilton painting.[ii]

Comparing the results of technical research conducted on these paintings helps to establish their relation. Like the McMaster work, the Städel version has been ascribed to the period between 1630 and 1640. Both works are painted on oak supports,[iii] and both were analyzed with dendrochronology by Dr. Peter Klein, who proposed 1635 as the earliest possible date of creation for the McMaster version and 1638 for the Städel work.[iv] Based on dendrochronological analysis, it is possible that the two works were painted within the same period, close to the end of Brouwer’s life.

The two works are also extremely close compositionally. In both paintings, the man’s jacket is fastened by three buttons, although this is more difficult to make out in the McMaster version. Infrared reflectography does not reveal an underdrawing in either painting (Fig. X). This emphasizes another parallel in artistic working method. However, the two works are not identical. An obvious difference is the amount of empty space left above the sitter’s hat.[v] It has not been possible to establish whether the McMaster painting had been cut down and was, therefore, closer in composition to the Städel version in its earlier state.

A comparison between the painting techniques of the two works, which are markedly different, offers more insight. The Städel work exhibits a greater sense of liveliness and three-dimensionality, created by the confident application of brushstrokes. On the other hand, the McMaster painting has areas of relative flatness, as can be seen in the hair at the left side of the panel, for example. Part of the reason for this apparent difference seems to come from the greater tonal range of the Städel painting in comparison to the more restricted palette of the McMaster work. By employing a more varied set of colours and shades, the Städel version displays an image that more accurately renders a sense of form and expression. The careful application of this more varied palette reflects a general level of artistic quality that is not quite matched by the McMaster version.

Condition issues can complicate a comparison of technique. The McMaster painting appears somewhat flatter and more thinly painted than the Städel work. When oil paint ages its refractive index changes, and the paint can become more transparent. Such changes will have a greater impact on the visual appearance of more thinly painted works. In addition, human intervention can play a role in making it difficult to compare works. Previous cleaning campaigns carried out on the McMaster painting may be the reason it looks less three-dimensional than the Städel version. Glazes, which are areas of thin oil-rich paint, can be more easily over-cleaned; this may have been the case in the McMaster painting. Under ultraviolet (UV) illumination, large sections of the painting fluoresce blue-green, suggesting the presence of an aged natural resin varnish (Fig. X).[vi] This layer has been selectively cleaned in the past, creating the dark areas and horizontal streaks visible in the UV picture. The middle finger of the hand holding the cup is a good example of an area that appears dark in the UV image as a result of cleaning.

The strong similarities between the McMaster and Städel paintings underscore the possibility that the works were produced in close physical and temporal proximity. Given the existence of many versions of this composition, and the difference in quality between the Städel and McMaster paintings, it can be proposed that the McMaster work may have been produced under Brouwer’s supervision, perhaps to satisfy the demand for a less costly product.[vii]

[i] Agnes Tieze, Flämische Gemälde im Städel Museum 1550–1800. Teil I. Künstler von A-R (Petersberg, Germany: Michael Imhof Verlag, 2009), 101–12.

[ii] The monogram is painted in dark brown paint, a device that can be found on other works associated with Brouwer. Only two of Brouwer’s works have full signatures:The Smokers at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Peasant’s Feast at the Kunsthaus in Zurich. To further complicate matters, works associated with the artist do not include a date, creating a challenge in attempting to chart his artistic development. See Konrad Renger, “Brouwer, Adriaen,” Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press, accessed October 23, 2014,

[iii] For details related to the Städel version, see Tieze, Flämische Gemälde, 101–12.

[iv] Information about the McMaster painting can be found in Dr. Klein’s report from March 5, 2013. Klein’s analysis resulted in an earliest possible felling date of 1627 for the McMaster painting. He factored in a minimum of two years of seasoning and a median of fifteen sapwood rings to arrive at his earliest possible date of creation. The Städel version was found to have an earliest possible felling date of 1630. Considering the seasoning period of at least two years and the allowance for sapwood rings, an earliest possible date of creation of 1638 has been suggested. For details related to the Städel version, see Tieze, Flämische Gemälde, 101–12.

[v] In the McMaster painting the hat just touches the top of the panel, whereas in the Städel painting there is more room between the top of the hat and the upper edge of the wooden support.

[vi] See the essay “Conservation and Condition Issues” in this volume.

[vii] Gerard Knuttel makes the important distinction between works executed entirely by the master and copies that had been “more or less ‘guaranteed’ by him—if not, indeed, touched up.” See Gerard Knuttel, Adriaen Brouwer. The Master and His Work (The Hague: L. J. C. Boucher, 1962), 61.