I really can’t make much sense of this painting, which failing probably underlines the ways in which leisure pastimes have altered since the 1600s. Only one person in the picture really looks like they’re having fun – a girl who is holding a dry paintbrush next to some bread. Her little brother is bummed out, her mother’s face scolds, and her pipe-smoking dad is looking at the mum like wtf? And indeed, as pointed out by the Met, from which I’ve poached the image, “[t]he merry dialogue in the near ground is foiled by the mysterious encounter of a young man and elderly bearded figure in the antechamber and vestibule.” They mean foiled in the arty sense, not the gotcha! sense. Personally I think it’s just Grandpa coming to join in the dry paintbrush hijinks, but it could be a forboding and grim approach, I suppose.
It’s true that in the midst of many rollicking good times, a dour figure lurks in wait – be it the dawn of Monday, an assignment due date, perhaps even feelings of guilt and frivolousness for the particularly conscientious, which Renaissance-era Dutch folk surely were, no matter how much gold-slathered leather adorned their walls. You might argue that awareness of the fleeting nature of leisure time heightens our enjoyment of it, but I’m sure you also remember the pleasurable ennui of an endless school holiday in your warless 1980s.
It’s often said that hunter-gatherers, which we all were at some point in our evolutionary history, spend far longer than we do at leisure, but this has since been disputed by pickier anthropologists who point out that if you include all the damn time these guys spend on food preparation and other practical little tasks beyond hunting and gathering, they’re working about as long as we are. What seems certain though is that these populations (which do tend to have far better mental health than us, despite lack of access to modern medicine), spend many more hours in a state of “flow”, and that their work is much more similar to their leisure pursuits than ours.