At this traditional festival, once a year in the Netherlands, a cake was cut, and whoever found the bean that had been baked in it was king of the feast. Such a theme of eating, drinking and carousing, the sheer physical joys (and occasional pains) of uproarious, gluttonous fun, had never been expressed in a picture with more gusto than in this one, though it had long been popular in Flemish art. Both the subject and its expression are such as to offend the more severe and refined. But the joys of the table are a basic part of all healthy human life, and the artist who expresses them vividly will always find congenial souls to carouse with him in imagination. It is perhaps significant that famine, disease and war had long ravaged Flanders. A vision such as this may have been the ideal fulfillment of many dreams.
The pictorial form in which it is expressed is appropriate and adequate. The warm reds and golds of Rubens fill the garments and the flushed faces of the drinkers with a ruddy glow. But the swirling grace of Rubens, his lingering vestige of classical beauty, has given way to the brutal naturalism of Caravaggio. The crowded fullness of the composition would be a fault in most pictures; but here the swaying proximity of many stout bodies, the tumbled profusion of jugs and eatables, are all in keeping. The design is unusual: from the dog’s leg at the bottom, the lighted strips flare upward and outward like a many branched candlestick; but with a writhing, flame-like quiver that animates every knotted sinew of the faces and the arms that strain upward in the drinking of the toast.
Abstractly, the rhythm is not dissimilar to Greco’s Pentecost (the frontispiece) although the subjects are at opposite poles, having only excited exaltation in common. Pictorial, like musical form, expresses in itself only the more abstract, general qualities of emotion.