Having posted individual notes on an enigmatic series of similar paintings, it feels time to pull them together in one place, also allowing the various finger-peeping fools to be viewed alongside each other.
We will soon add some related prints and in the meantime, welcome any fresh insights, as well as looking forward to hearing from a magnanimous and munificent patron, wealthy by legal means, and willing to sponsor a real-world exhibition of the growing Fooleum we’re building online.
Moe 01 – ‘Laughing jester’ (c. 1520), Dutch; Nationalmuseum Stockholm
The first in the series we’re calling ‘Five Guys Named Moe’, is the ‘Laughing Jester’ by an unknown Dutch artist generally dated to around 1520. This work, which is the front cover illustration of Fools Are Everywhere, is one of several paintings and other images featuring a fool in this curious stance, which we bring together here in an endeavour to better understand them as a group.
A first exploration of this theme is a paper by Görel Cavalli-Björkman which presents a few of them including this opening example. Another vital contribution is Kenneth Craig’s paper on the proverb underpinning the finger-peeping pose. We draw heavily on these papers, but having found additional examples, and feeling that some questions remain unanswered, this is an attempt to build on their work, adding more images as they emerge and seeking other input from art historians.
This first example presents a jester in the iconic costume commonly attributed to them: parti-coloured clothing in striking combinations and colours, here green, red and yellow, and the cap complete with ass ears and coxcomb, both signalling the fool. Cavalli-Björkman mentions the colours of the clothing:
‘During the Middle Ages yellow – the colour of saffron – had negative associations. Saffron could have a bad effect on the nervous system. It could provoke laughter and even folly. Green was the colour of disgrace.’ (Cavalli-Björkman, p. 106)
The fool also has the jester’s ‘marotte’, the fool-stick topped with a small jester’s head – allowing the jester to engage in a conversation with another ‘fool’ and even to address mockery to this mirror-fool that might be intended for other people in the room.
The peeping-through-fingers is intriguing. Cavalli-Björkman suggests it could mean to ‘avoid seeing things as they are, particularly if they are unpleasant’, something like ‘turning a blind eye’ (Cavalli-Björkman, p. 101). She refers to a saying alluded to in Pieter Bruegel’s painting The Flemish Proverbs:
‘Die niet dor de vinger ziet, dient in de wereld niet’
(‘He who never looks through his fingers at aught, will never in the world be sought.’) (Cavalli-Björkman, p. 101)
This could suggest something like ‘You’ll never get ahead if you don’t look the other way now and then’. Is the fool mocking us for turning a blind eye to wickedness, or conniving with us, or is he a fool for doing so himself? Curiously, Tietze-Conrat in her landmark book on jesters in art considers the ‘turn a blind eye’ interpretation of this gesture to be wrong, though without offering a reason or an alternative.
In this and similar paintings and prints, the fool holds a pair of spectacles half tucked into his jacket. Cavalli-Björkman mentions a German proverb, ‘To buy someone some glasses’ (‘Jemanden eine Brille kaufen’), which means to deceive or fool somebody. One commentary moots the possibility that the association with deception could be due to the fact that:
‘making glasses at the time was a technical challenge, causing their quality to vary greatly – for this reason, their makers were sometimes considered charlatans.’
Kenneth Craig suggests:
‘We would not be far wrong to suspect by their presence another comment on the lack of perspicacity in our Fools. Indeed, a parallel tradition in the sixteenth century views spectacles as an ironic attribute of those who cannot or will not see the truth.’ (Craig, pp. 119-20)
He provides a convincing example of this interpretation in a woodcut by Erhard Schoen, ‘Owl avoiding daylight’ (1540), in which an owl, ‘that bird of darkness and evil who hides from the daylight’, is depicted with spectacles, the sun and a lit candle and the inscription of another German (and Dutch) proverb:
‘Was hilfft mich sün liche oder prill / Weyl ich doch selbs nicht sehen will.’
(‘What use are sun, candle or spectacles to me / Since I do not myself have the will to see.’) (Craig, p. 120)
It seems reasonable to conclude that the glasses reinforce the ‘turning of a blind eye’ inherent in the peeking-through-fingers gesture, either signifying a deliberate pulling of the wool over our eyes, and / or a wilful self-deception, looking the other way, as it were.
Another possibility, mooted in an essay on the symbolism of glasses in art, is that they could signal the ‘folly of the search for knowledge in the face of inevitable and unpredictable death’. It’s an interesting perspective to be kept in mind, pending a primary source to illustrate it.
One aspect not mentioned by any of these commentators is the fact that none of the fools are wearing the glasses; given it might help them see more clearly if they actually used them, this could underpin the idea of ‘turning a blind eye’, or of wilful ignorance.
Moe 02 – ‘Laughing fool’ (c. 1500 or 1520?), attributed to Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen (1470-1533); courtesy of the Davis Museum at Wellesley College, copyright retained in accordance with U.S. copyright law; oil on wood
The second in our series, the Wellesley ‘Laughing Fool’, is almost identical in stance and props to the anonymous ‘Laughing jester’ featured first, including the coxcomb-ass-ear-cap, the glasses half-revealed, and the marotte or fool-stick.
In this case the marotte’s jester-head has its mouth open, whether in a ‘ho-ho’ laugh at the nonsense it is hearing, or in blowing a mocking raspberry, is unclear. This fool is inclining to his left whereas the ‘Laughing jester’ is inclined to his right. The colour scheme of his costume is similar, though this one has some fur trimming around the sleeves.
The painting is attributed by the Davis Museum at Wellesley College, where it is held, to Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen (1470-1533). However, Cavalli-Björkman questions this and posits an anonymous northern Dutch painter. Wellesley dates it to c. 1500, Cavalli-Björkman to c. 1520 (the same time as the ‘Laughing jester’ it resembles).
She goes further, attributing both paintings, plus a third we feature below, to the same anonymous master, on the grounds that:
‘Stylistically they are very much alike, painting in an old-fashioned, rather abrupt and angular manner with a hard surface of paint in brilliant colours on a dark background. This return to a 15th century style was not unusual in the northern Netherlands around the 1520s.’ (Cavalli-Björkman, p. 105)
While hesitating to question the opinion of a respected art historian, and while I agree that the two are remarkably similar in their composition, to my eye, this ‘Laughing fool’ looks rougher in appearance than his comparatively polished and dapper counterpart, though this is based on viewing photos rather than the original paintings.
Pending a consensus, we will continue to feature related paintings. Perhaps lining them all up on the same wall will give us fresh insights.
Moe 03 – ‘Jester looking through his fingers’ (c. 1570), formerly attributed to Pieter Huys (c. 1519-81); Private Collection USA; oil on wood.
The third in our series, ‘Jester looking through his fingers’, is also the third of three which Cavalli-Björkman moots as being by a single unknown artist. While I question this reasoning, since the three paintings have clear differences in style as well as marked similarities, if Cavalli-Björkman is right, the painting might date from around 1520, half a century earlier than the date currently attributed to it (c. 1570). Tietze-Conrat’s book attributed this version of a ‘peeping through fingers’ jester to Pieter Huys (c. 1519-81) (Tietze-Conrat, p. 85).
There are some differences between this painting and the two already highlighted. This one is a close-up of the jester’s head, without the background marotte (or fool-stick), and without a pair of glasses held to the chest. He does have a similar coxcomb-ass-ear cap and the same peeking through his fingers. He also has a laughing expression, perhaps less mirthful than the other two; this one is slightly discomfiting, as if he knows something you don’t. He has a wart on his face which isn’t apparent with the other two.
Moe 04 – ‘Laughing fool or jester’ (16th century), Dutch unknown artist; oil on wood; provenance and whereabouts unknown
The fourth in our series, ‘Laughing Jester or Fool’, is more mysterious. Apparently a pretty straightforward twin of our ‘Moe 02’, if not a copy, its provenance is elusive. By chance I saw it on an online art market, from which it has now disappeared, and I know of no other reference to it. It was listed as 16th century Dutch, which may be possible given the others we’ve seen, again oil on wood. The only notable difference from the others is the addition of a bell to the already symbol-laden coxcomb-ass-ear cap.
Pleased to add this one to the collection, particularly as it is probably now in private hands and off the radar. If anybody has any insights, do let me know.
Moe 05 – ‘Laughing fool’, Christie’s, provenance and whereabouts unknown
Another ‘Laughing Fool’, fifth in our series, closely resembles the Wellesley fool. This one was sold by Christie’s in 2017 and they attributed it to a follower of Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen (1470-1533), perhaps on the grounds that the Wellesley laughing fool has been attributed to him.
This one has the glasses and the marotte, but has lost the green in his costume, while adding a bell to the ass ear of his jester’s cap. His expression is gentler, perhaps simpler, than the first we featured, and in my inexpert view, the artist was less of a master.
Moe 06 – ‘Fool grinning through his fingers’ (c. 1540), woodcut, Heinrich Vogtherr the Younger (1513-1568), Schloss Friedenstein Museum, Gotha; we also refer to this as the ‘Vogtherr fool’ to help distinguish it from similar images.
Sixth in our series is a woodcut by Heinrich Vogtherr the Younger (1513-68), dated to around 1540 and so slightly later than the preceding paintings on the same theme. He has the cap and bells complete with ass ears and coxcomb.
This fool wields his marotte almost like a weapon and has a pair of spectacles tucked into his jacket front; the glasses, which occur in several of our series, seem to suggest an incapacity to ‘see’ the truth – perhaps the fact that the fool has glasses, which should aid sight, but doesn’t actually put them on, hints at this unwillingness to see things as they really are, reinforcing the turning of a blind eye inherent in the peeking-through-fingers sly look. Our woodcut Moe also stands out from the first ‘Five Guys Named Moe’ in our series for having an inscription:
Dero Narren lache Jch Allenn / Denn nůr Jirñ Kolbñ thůn gefalleñ
(Euer Narren lache ich allen, denn nur ihre Kolben tun gefallen.
I laugh at all you fools / Who only take pleasure in your fool-stick.) (Craig, p. 106)
This seems to be a double-entendre, mocking those who make too much of their ‘stick’, and yet the fool is also indulging them; the peeking through fingers reflects a medieval proverb meaning to turn a blind eye or look the other way, tolerating or conniving at immoral behaviour. Kenneth Craig suggests that the fool’s out-sized nose itself is ‘suggestive’, echoing the stick aligned with it.
Moe 07 – ‘Painting of a jester’ (c. 1550), oil on wood, by the Master of 1537 (Frans Verbeeck?), formerly attributed to Quentin Massys (1466–1530), private collection
Seventh in this series of paintings bears a striking resemblance to our mysterious ‘Moe 04’. This one, too, I found on an auction site. Said to be the work of the Master of 1537, who worked in Mechelen and whose name comes from having had a panel dated to 1537 attributed to him, this artist has in turn been identified as Frans Verbeeck (1510-70), and the painting dated to around 1550, making it later than some of the others we’ve featured. To help distinguish him from the others, we’ll call him the ‘Verbeeck fool’. I also call him the ‘merry fool’, as he appears more innocently cheery than the slightly scary ‘Moe 02’ in our series.
But we see the same props – glasses tucked into his jacket; the marotte in the background, the ass-ear-coxcomb cap and, of course, the peeping through fingers.
In the coming weeks we will add some prints on the same theme, while welcoming any comments or insights on the works so far featured in this mini-exhibition.
MOE 01 – ‘Laughing jester’ (c. 1520), Dutch; Nationalmuseum Stockholm, Stockholm; oil on wood.
MOE 02 – ‘Laughing fool’ (c. 1500 or 1520?), attributed to Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen (1470-1533); courtesy of the Davis Museum at Wellesley College, copyright retained in accordance with U.S. copyright law; oil on wood; we also refer to this as the ‘Wellesley fool’ to distinguish it from similarly titled paintings.
MOE 03 – ‘Jester looking through his fingers’ (c. 1570), formerly attributed to Pieter Huys (c. 1519-81); Private Collection USA; oil on wood.
MOE 04 – ‘Laughing fool or jester’ (16th century), Dutch unknown artist; oil on wood; provenance and whereabouts unknown.
MOE 05 – ‘Laughing fool’, Christie’s, provenance and whereabouts unknown.
MOE 06 – ‘Fool grinning through his fingers’ (c. 1540), woodcut, Heinrich Vogtherr the Younger (1513-1568), Schloss Friedenstein Museum, Gotha; we also refer to this as the ‘Vogtherr fool’ to help distinguish it from similar images.
MOE 07 – Painting of a jester (c. 1550), oil on wood, by the Master of 1537 (Frans Verbeeck?), formerly attributed to Quentin Massys (1466–1530), private collection, previously on loan to the Musée départemental de Flandre in Cassel, whereabouts now unknown. According to the background text appearing on the auction house website, ‘Dr. Jaco Rutgers concludes in his academic study (25 June 2019) that the Master of 1537 is identical to Frans Verbeeck’.
Amoako, Aida, ‘Spectacular vision: the symbolism of glasses in art’, ArtUK.org, 22 July 2020.
Cavalli-Björkman, Görel, ‘The Laughing Jester’, Nationalmuseum Bulletin, Stockholm, 9:2 (1985), pp. 100-09.
Craig, Kenneth, ‘Proverb’s Progress: a Fool Looking Through His Fingers’, in The Great Emporium, The Low countries as a Cultural Crossroad in the Renaissance and the Eighteenth Century (Amsterdam 1992), pp. 119-20 and fig. 7.
Friedländer, Max J., “Das Bildnis eines Narren von dem Meister des Angerer-Portrats,” Pantheon, 10 (1932), pp. 232–33, ill.
Mellinkoff, Ruth, Outcasts: Signs of Otherness in Northern European Art of the Late Middle Ages, 2 vols (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993) – this magnum opus touches on many elements in this and related paintings, rather than making specific references to them.
Tietze-Conrat, Erica, Dwarfs and Jesters in Art, trans. by E. Osborn (New York: Phaidon, 1957), frontispiece and page 85.