The second in our peeping-through-fingers series is almost identical in stance and props to the anonymous ‘Laughing Jester’ recently featured, 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. According to the art historian Cavalli-Björkman, who has written about both paintings:
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.
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, i.e. the same time as the Laughing Jester it resembles. She goes further, attributing both paintings, plus a third we will feature shortly, 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.
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 not 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.
The peeping-through-fingers is based on a proverb equivalent to the English ‘turn a blind eye’ or ‘look the other way’. Cavalli-Björkman suggests it could mean to ‘avoid seeing things as they are, particularly if they are unpleasant’. She mentions 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’) .
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?
In this and similar paintings and prints, he 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.’
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’.)
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 the fool isn’t wearing the glasses, which might help him see more clearly if he actually used them, again underpinning the idea of ‘turning a blind eye’.
Credit: ‘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; 35.2 x 23.2cm
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. 105-36.
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.