Drunken Masterpieces: The National Gallery London

With every new Drunken Masterpieces post, it becomes more and more challenging to not repeat myself with a colorful array of tavern scenes and acts of drunken revelry from the same old artists (I am looking at you, Jan Steen!) and to try and tell a cohesive story. If you take on a museum as immense as the National Gallery in London, you’d better have a plan to stay engaged. Without a plan, you will find yourself reading all the plaques in the first room, convincing yourself that gazing at every painting of the Virgin Mary is somehow going to miraculously imbue your brain with newfound intelligence. On the contrary, after the third golden halo, your brain is already starting to check out. Pretty soon, the paintings will become like scenery from a car window.

Inside the lush National Gallery London

One nice way to avoid this is to use the audio guide provided by the museum. Another is to choose a theme. And as I stood outside the museum, framing up my beer picture, I really wasn’t sure what that was going to be. The beer that I chose for the picture was a can of Shelby beer, the official beer of the Peaky Blinders TV series. Could I somehow work a Peaky Blinders theme into the National Gallery? It is always risky centering anything around pop culture as it immediately dates the material. Thirty years from now, someone will read this and go That old show? But I don’t have any better ideas. Let’s do this.

The Boss

There can only be one guy at the top of a criminal empire. The same is true for drunks. In the hierarchy of drunks, there is only one boss. Silenus, the God of Drunkeness. In this work attributed to Anthony Van Dyck, Silenus, looking like he could have crushed a few beer cans with his bare hands back in the day, gets wine grapes squeezed over his head. Silenus taught Dionysus everything he knows ensuring the empire and carefree drunkeness would endure.

Anthony Van Dyck (attributed) – Drunken Silenus supported by Satyrs (1620)

Power Struggles

Running a criminal empire means calling people into your office, intimidating them, and questioning their loyalty. However, no interrogation in any criminal empire can quite match up to the ultimate confrontation in all of history. Christ before the High Priest. Christ was preaching on rival turf and a criminal empire can’t allow that. But if there was any man in world history who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, it was this High Priest. Gerrit van Honthorst captures perfectly the look on Christ’s face of a man who was about to make some serious changes.

Christ before the High Priest by Gerrit van Honthorst (1617)

Celebrating the Spoils

When a criminal empire throws a drinking party, they must in some way give the middle finger to their enemy. There is no better example of this than Babylonian King Belshazzar throwing a party with wine served in chalices stolen from the Jerusalem Temple. In Belshazzar’s Feast, Rembrandt gives us arguably art’s most memorable profile as Belshazzar looks in shock at the words mene mene tekel upharsin appearing out of thin air. In very loose terms, it meant Belshazzar went messing with the wrong rival. He died that night.

Belshazzar’s Feast by Rembrandt (about 1638)

Standing up to authority

No criminal empire comes to power or stays there without dealing with political figures, especially when they are threatening the status quo. In Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors, we see a French diplomat and a French Bishop on their way to see Henry VIII. According to John North’s book The Ambassador’s Secret, the two men were on their way to confront Henry VIII about his request for divorce. Henry VIII is estimated to have executed 57,000 people during his reign1. Not one of them… was either of these guys. Beneath those fancy robes are a couple pair of stones.

The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein (1533)

The WWI-Era criminal look

The beret is a hat which can exude many characters. It can make one look like an old man, a wanderer on the Highlands in search of a Scotch, or a French mime to name a few. What they all have in common is that a beret makes you look like a criminal and in the right setting, a drunk criminal. In Joaquin Sorolla’s The Drunkard, Zarauz from 1910, a few years before WWI, we see the drunk in a tilted beret looking glassy-eyed right at us while his two beret-sporting cronies lean forward as if intently listening to the drunk’s criminal schemes. Probably he is just a peasant drunk. Or perhaps, behind the pathetic grin is the world’s foremost criminal mind about to get his own Netflix series.

The Drunkard, Zarauz by Joaquin Sorolla (1910)
Just a drunk or criminal mastermind?

The obligatory tavern scene

Ok I lied, here is one, literally titled Tavern Scene from Adriaen Brouwer. In the end, criminals get what’s coming to them. The only thing worse than getting gunned down at a toll booth or having one’s toenails pulled out by pliers is the wrath of the local bar wench.

Tavern Scene by Adriaen Brouwer (about 1635)
The fate that awaits you if you choose to be a criminal

Final Words

So there you have it, the secret (and drunken) tour of the criminal underbelly within the National Gallery London. If there is one thing more criminal than an underbelly, it is trying to take on the copious number of masterpieces in the National Gallery without a plan. Don’t find yourself in the suboptimal state of art-fried brain. You might as well just head straight to the gift shop, buy the museum book, go to a cafe and look at it with a beer. And frankly, that sounds like a pretty good idea too.


  1. https://www.history.co.uk/article/the-killer-king-how-many-people-did-henry-viii-execute

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