Drunken Masterpieces: Gemäldegalerie Berlin

I am sure every language has a Drunk as… proverb.

Drunk as a skunk makes perfect absolute sense to most Americans. When you stop to think of it literally, the sense that you thought it made quickly vanishes. Much like starvin’ like Marvin, the very existence of the phrase has nothing to do with the cravings of everyone’s friend Marvin or the drinking habits of a stinky critter and everything to do with the rhyme. But that makes it unique to English. So the poor skunk unwittingly gets a bad rap as a drunkard. But the skunk is not alone in the world.

Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie

Drunk As An Owl

One of my favorite paintings in Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie is also by one of my favorite artists, Frans Hals. This painting shows a woman with a crooked, wild grin looking off to the side as if someone across the bar has just told a dirty joke. Her right thumb presumably stills rests on the lid lever of the beer stein keeping it ready for the next swig. If you look closely at the painting style, you will notice that what seems to be an accurate portrayal of this person is actually a series of blurred broad brush strokes. Yet Hals is so adept at capturing emotion, that had someone painted this portrait with intricate precise detail, it would not have been as effective or interesting. The power of this portrait is the way it influences the mind to fill in the details and create an almost photographic impression of this woman, foreshadowing the age of…. Impressionism.

Malle Babbe by Frans Hals

The name of this woman is Malle Babbe or “Loony” Babbe who was based on a real woman named Barbara living in Haarlem in the Netherlands at the time when Frans Hals had his workshop there. Think of the town you grew up in. Most likely there was at least one person who you suspected had a mental handicap but was still able to function in public (not to mention show up at the local watering hole). That may have been Malle Babbe. Although it is also possible she was a resident of an insane asylum who was inserted into this scene for the purposes of effect. In any case, she is today a well-known symbol in the city of Haarlem with her own statue and her own beer brewed by Haarlem’s Jopen Brewery.

Malle Babbe by Jopen

But why is there an owl on her shoulder? The common theory is that it refers to the Dutch proverb Drunk as an owl. And there we have the owl, the skunk of the Dutch Golden Age. Famous for being a lush and only getting three licks in before biting into a Tootsie Pop.

Drunk As A Wood Eater

Out of the 126 known Dutch proverbs depicted in Pieter Breughel the Elder’s painting called, logically, Nederlandish Proverbs, not one of them refers to Drunk as an owl.


Breughel’s painting came 100 years before Frans Hals’ so it is possible the proverb didn’t exist at the time. Oddly enough, none of the 126 proverbs seems to deal directly with drunkenness or alcohol consumption. But there are plenty of toilet proverbs such as crapping thru the same hole which refers to inseparable pals or rubbing your backside against the door whenever you treat something too lightly and then there is the ultimate crapping on the world to describe someone who despises everything.

But the most important proverb with relation to this blog is the guy in the bottom left corner who is gnawing on a wooden post.

The pillar-biter

This is the proverb of the pillar-biter which represents religious hypocrisy. Those crafty beer marketeers in Belgium sure know how to use cultural references for their beer names. Brouwerij Bavik has two Pilaarbijter beers, one a blond and the other a dubbel.

Pilaarbijter Blond


Drunk As A Protestant Spinster

And perhaps a most elegant depiction of religious hypocrisy may be in Jan Vermeer’s Glass of Wine. Here you have a young woman (ok, too young to be a spinster but it sounded good) drinking a glass of wine while a man stands looking ready to pour her another. This painting is gorgeous, but the best thing about it is the way the woman holds the glass to her face. So delicate and proper, almost embarrassed in a way, yet trying not to miss a single drop. On one hand, you can almost imagine the wide-eyed wonder that would soon occur or perhaps the girlish giggles the would bubble up from years of pent-up Protestant fundamentalism. Or on the other hand, maybe she is being taught a lesson and forced to drink until she is sick, emphasized by the way her arm crosses over her stomach almost holding her elbow up. According to references on the painting, the stained glass to the left is an allegory of Temperance which is opposite of what seems to be happening; hence the hypocrisy.

Jan Vermeer – Glass of Wine

Drunk As the Kids of Drunk Parents

Paintings of drinking alcohol were often allegorical and not just literal representations of the act of Untapping beers. Any blog post about Drunken Masterpieces cannot be complete without at least one contribution from Jan Steen. His painting As the Old Sing, So Pipe the Young is completely allegorical about how the behavior of parents can affect their children.

Jan Steen – As the Old Sing, So Pipe the Young

This is another amazing painting on many levels. There is a lot of detail going on here. Many people are drinking and a few are playing musical instruments. A chair is over-turned and somehow a baby and a dog seem to be oblivious to it all. The painting hanging on the upper right of the wall is a Frans Hals work Pekelharing or Pickled Herring, which depicts a drunk comedian. The Steen painting gives a totally opposite feeling than the previous Vermeer. Vermeer’s is quiet. Steen’s is loud and boisterous. The allegorical warning is highlighted in the right-hand side where an older brother takes the role of the man in Vermeer’s painting except here rather than waiting to pour her next glass, he is pouring the wine directly into his younger sister’s mouth. The looks on their faces are priceless.


Drunk As a Cheat with a Topless Whore

But not all drunken masterpieces are allegorical. Take Wouter Crabeth’s The Cheaters. The fact that the title is plural seems to indicate that there are multiple elements of cheating. Clearly the guy on the left has some cards stashed in his belt and looks to have swapped a lowly three with an Ace of spades. Has he been noticed by the whore who is looking at him? Meanwhile the guy on the right is a master of multitasking. He is choosing a card from the woman’s hand while the other arm is reaching behind him for a fresh glass of wine (or beer). Why is the woman raising her finger? To alert someone to the cheating or to order more alcohol for the men? Maybe it’s the women who are trying to cheat the men out of their money. The face of the woman on the left seems to indicate some humor, perhaps a knowing strategy to lure the men into a false sense of security. Maybe the man on the left is actually peeking at the woman’s cards rather than sharing a hand. Maybe she is using her exposed boobs as a means of distraction. You could argue that every one of the four is cheating somehow.


There is nothing allegorical in this painting that I am aware of but the painting is absolutely fun to look at. I cannot help but compare it to the guy crapping on the world back in Brueghel’s painting who is also playing cards. It makes me wonder whether a painting such as Crabeth’s The Cheaters, which is depicting several layers of debauchery, is somehow crapping on the world of art as if to despise the whole idea that art must convey a moral message, proverb, or allegory.

Final Words (or Drunk As a Hans van Aachen)

The Gemäldegalerie in Berlin has several more Drunken Masterpieces that didn’t make the final cut for this blog post. I was actually quite pleasantly surprised at the collection. This museum is not in the most well-traveled part of Berlin and is set back from where all the real action takes place in the city. The only reason for my visit was to do research for this blog. Without any expectations, it turned out to be quite a proverbial learning experience. Easily Malle Babbe and The Netherlandish Proverbs were already worth the price of admission given their relationships to beer mythology. In the spirit of Hans van Aachen’s self-portrait, I quote the most famous beer proverb of all. Cheers!
(ok, that probably doesn’t qualify…)

Hans van Aachen (self portrait)

4 thoughts on “Drunken Masterpieces: Gemäldegalerie Berlin

  1. I hope you will one day expand this post into an entire art history course on drunkenness in European paintings. Because … what a brilliant idea, and what brilliant analysis you provide! What a shame though that we’ll never really know what those topless whores were up to, or whether the brother and sister in “As the Old Sing, So Pipe the Young” ended up in rehab. You are hilarious and very, very clever. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Wonderful! I wonder how long it took Brueghel to paint ALL those proverbs! You could search that painting for days with all the scenes within scenes. It’s interesting how animals take on different symbolism from age to age and culture to culture. The Hals does have a foreshadowing of impressionism. It’s a rich painting full of a moment. In the Steen, I’m intrigued by the baby in the front left, very much at peace and perhaps even sleeping through the hoopla! And of course Vermeer, his paintings always invite you to sort of think a while on things. So it is with this one. The self portrait at the end is just plain joyful! 😊 A perfect ending to a great write up!

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s