This version of the ‘peeping through fingers’ jester was attributed by Tietze-Conrat in her 1957 book to the artist Pieter Huys (c. 1519-81), although the art historian Cavalli-Björkman has questioned this and further moots the possibility that this painting, along with the two similar finger-peeping examples we’ve featured (‘Laughing Jester’ and ‘Laughing Fool’) were all by an earlier northern Dutch artist, 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 I question this reasoning when I look at the three paintings, which have differences in style as well as marked similarities, if Cavalli-Björkman is right, the painting would date from around 1520, half a century earlier than the date currently attributed to it, circa 1570.
This jester has clothes of the same colours as the other two, and Cavalli-Björkman’s interpretation of these is worth mentioning:
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.
Beyond that, there are some differences between this painting and the two we’ve 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 enigmatic 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.
The peeping-through-fingers appears to refer to a proverb meaning the equivalent of ‘to turn a blind eye’ or ‘look the other way’ in English. 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?
Curiously, regarding the finger-peeping, Tietze-Conrat says she considers the ‘turn a blind eye’ interpretation of this gesture as being wrong, though she doesn’t offer any reason or alternative.
Credit: ‘Jester looking through his fingers’ (c. 1570), formerly attributed to Pieter Huys (c. 1519-81); Private Collection USA; oil on wood.
Cavalli-Björkman, Görel, ‘The Laughing Jester’, Nationalmuseum Bulletin, Stockholm, 9:2 (1985), pp. 100-109.
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.
Tietze-Conrat, Erica, Dwarfs and Jesters in Art, trans. by E. Osborn (New York: Phaidon, 1957), frontispiece and page 85.
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.