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According to Houbraken, Ochtervelt studied in the studio of the Italianate painter Nicolaes Berchem, whose style is evident in his early compositions of scenes of galanterie, hunting parties and riders in landscapes. In the 1660s Ochtervelt focused more attention on genre scenes and began to paint groups in interiors, revealing in his work a knowledge of Frans van Mieris. During this period Ochtervelt refined his style and introduced a new subject into genre painting consisting of figures selling fish, fowl and other products in front of houses. These compositions allowed the artist to depict interiors that connected with urban views visible through the doorways, while such paintings also constitute a study of the social classes represented. Throughout his career Ochtervelt’s work reflects the influence of Vermeer, De Hooch and Ter Borch and he achieved something of their quality in his best paintings.
The present panel was acquired from Goldschmidt prior to 1930 for the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection and was included in the 1930 Munich exhibition. Its provenance can be traced back to 1734 when it was auctioned in Amsterdam. It then passed through various hands before it belonged to the Six family, with whom it remained for several generations.
Oyster Eaters includes some of Ochtervelt’s most characteristic features. The artist locates a small group of figures in a dark interior in which we can barely make out two windows in the background and various objects on the walls. The three figures, lit by a strong shaft of light that precisely defines them as well as the objects around them, are depicted with their faces in angled positions, particularly the man, whose head is inclined to one side and tilted back. Also characteristic of Ochtervelt is the position of the woman in the foreground with her face in profil perdu thus emphasising the sloping lines of the composition.
The three figures are grouped around a table on which the older woman is placing a tray of oysters. This shellfish had erotic connotations and was thought to be an aphrodisiac, an allusion which, combined with that of music, suggests an amorous theme for the painting. To judge from the figures and the other elements this scene might be set in a brothel. Ochtervelt depicted brothel subjects on various occasions, for example, in the canvas belonging to the Corporation of the City of London, and in the one in the Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam. In addition to the present panel, it is known that there were three other versions of this composition (present location unknown), in one of which the room is illuminated by the light entering from a door that leads to the outside.