Cannabis history in the Netherlands - The Smokers of Adriaen Brouwer

A man sitting on a stool is holding an ale tankard in his right hand and a pipe in the other and blowing smoke out his mouth. His eyes are wide open. He looks astonished, as if the effect of the smoked substance has taken him completely by surprise. It is the Flemish painter Adriaen Brouwer (ca. 1606-1638) who was known to be fond of ale and a smoke. He could often be found in taverns.

At his right, sits his friend, the artist Jan de Heem (1606- ca. 1684) who specialized in still-life painting. Three other smokers keep them company, the man on the left is closing one nostril and blowing smoke out of the other.

Smoking tobacco mixed with hemp

In Brouwer’s day, people who smoked were called ‘toeback-drinckers’. They smoked tobacco, often mixed with hemp, in Gouda stone pipes. Hemp used to be cultivated for industrial purposes all over the Netherlands (for making sails and rope, for example) but there were also tobacco sellers who sold hemp.

Smoking was extensive but in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries severe action was taken against the ‘toeback-drinckers’. Just before his death, Pope Urbanus VII (1521-1590) issued the first ban on smoking ever. He made it known in 1590 that people who used pipe, chewing or snuff tobacco in or around the church would possibly be excommunicated. The civil authorities threatened to cut off noses or even hang people from the gallows. However there were also impassioned proponents of smoking. Some scholars believed that smoke was beneficial for body and soul.

Adriaen Brouwer

Adriaen Brouwer brilliantly portrayed the ‘toeback-drinckers’ in his paintings. The expressive and dramatic expression of his smokers, card players and brawlers in taverns are frequently almost caricatures. Brouwer, who was a very popular painter in his day, had a great influence on his contemporaries in Antwerp and Haarlem, among others, David Teniers de Jonge (1610-1690) and Adriaen van Ostade (1610-1685). Both Rubens and Rembrandt praised his oeuvre, of which only sixty undated paintings remain. Because of his exuberant life style, Brouwers often came into contact with the law and frequently had to flee from his creditors. The artist died at a young age in Antwerp.

This nineteenth century picture from the permanent collection of the Hash Marihuana & Hemp Museum is a reproduction of a painting by Brouwer from ca. 1636 in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

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