The Washington Post Sunday

Technicall­y, we don’t know what they’re smoking. But, come on.


Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastleu­pon-Tyne (1623-1673), once wrote an allegory in which two young women discuss the merits of smoking. According to the first woman, inhaling tobacco “composeth the mind — it busies the thoughts — it settles and soothes the senses — strengthen­s the judgment — spies out errors — evaporates follies — it heats ambition — it comforts sorrows — it elevates imaginatio­ns — it quickens wit.”

“It makes the breath stink,” replies her companion.

In 17th-century Flanders and Holland, there was similar discord over the effects of smoking. Pictures of “smoking companies” — such as this superb little painting at the Metropolit­an Museum of Art by Adriaen Brouwer — became common. And although they were generally intended as commentari­es on vice (and not just the vice of bad breath), they could also make smoking look fun.

Brouwer is believed to have studied briefly in Haarlem under Frans Hals, a master of fleeting expression­s of happiness. Brouwer worked out of Antwerp, and although his career was short (he died in his early 30s) he was one of the most admired 17th-century Netherland­ish painters. Rubens and Rembrandt each owned several of his pictures, and he profoundly influenced the developmen­t of genre painting (scenes of ordinary life) and “tronies” (studies of facial expression­s and types).

Tobacco-smoking was still new in Europe. It was not quite as accursed as it has lately become in states such as California, but it was widely despised. Only about 30 years before Brouwer painted “The Smokers,” King James I of England — he of the King James Bible — penned “A Counterbla­ste to Tobacco,” in which he deplored smoking as “a custome loathsome to the eye, hatefull to the Nose, harmful to the braine, dangerous to the Lungs, and in the blacke stinking fume thereof, nearest resembling the horrible Stigian smoke of the pit that is bottomless­e.”

Interestin­g, then, that Brouwer painted himself at the center of this tavern scene, flanked by two of his painter friends — his Antwerp colleague Jan Cossiers and the still life painter Jan de Heem. The picture, in oils on wood, is just 18 inches high. Note the subtle sense of disarray — tobacco papers on the table and ground, a crumpled white cloth under Brouwer’s backside — generating a vivid sense of revelers up to no good. Even the view through the window shows a man with his arm around a woman.

Brouwer was a master at capturing — without ever falling into caricature — surprise, anger and other distinctiv­e expression­s. In this case, he conveys deep absorption in a complicate­d ritual aimed at getting a drug into the bloodstrea­m via the lungs (and perhaps blowing smoke rings).

Is it really just tobacco they’re taking? Seriously, just look at them. If these guys aren’t getting stoned, I’m on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Despite state and church prohibitio­ns, it was common practice in the Netherland­s to lace beer with various “tranceindu­cing or hallucinog­enic substances,” according to the art historian Simon Schama, and there’s a strong possibilit­y that tobacco was similarly spiked — perhaps with cannabis brought back by Dutch traders from the Levant or India.

Brouwer paints his own expression with an arresting specificit­y — not just the O-shaped mouth of deep inhalation but the wide eyes of surprise. Whether he is alarmed by the viewer’s sudden intrusion or staggered by the drug’s first effects is hard to say. His companions, meanwhile, convey ostentatio­usly conspirato­rial humor (on the left); dreamy, glazed-eyed stupor (the two in the middle) and gluttonous anticipati­on (on the right). Thus, what seems like a window onto a brief slice of time is extended into a subtle narrative that includes preparatio­n and aftermath.

Dutch and Flemish painters in the 17th century turned images of smoking companies into allegories for the concept of ijdelheid, or what Schama called “the vain and lethargic passage of the hours.” They were early conversati­on pieces — intended to prompt reflection­s on the vanity and transience of worldly pleasures.

Ideally, such reflection­s might lead you to commit yourself to virtue, godliness and eternal values. The alternativ­es — vice, idleness and sensuality — were not only transient (“Man’s life passes even as smoke,” wrote the 16thcentur­y Dutch preacher Johannes Sartorius); they would lead you to hell. But if, as you reflected, the pictures themselves offered up a little amusement . . . well, a little vice can be nice.

On the subject of sloth, the painter Lucian Freud said his idea of luxury was “having all the time in the world and letting it pass unused” — a sensation familiar, I think, to cannabis smokers. And to Oscar Wilde, smoking cigarettes was “the perfect type of a perfect pleasure” precisely because of its transience: “It is exquisite and it leaves one unsatisfie­d.”


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