Man with a Pretzel and The Fowler (NG S 3524), Bergant’s only known and extant genre paintings, were part of the legacy which the wealthy merchant Gašper Kanduč (1768–1852) left to his niece Katarina Hudovernik upon his and his wife’s death. They remained in the possession of the Hudovernik family until 1945. In 2016 the National Gallery acquired the works from the descendants of a private individual in whose keeping they had remained after the war. The identity of the person who originally commissioned them remains unknown, although it was probably someone from the circle of Bergant’s noble patrons in Ljubljana or the wider Carniola region.
Man with a Pretzel and The Fowler are distinguished by their marked realism and insightful character, as a result of which they stand out in Bergant’s oeuvre. They are also remarkable as genre figures in the broader context of early modern genre painting in Slovenia. The images allow multiple layers of iconological interpretation that do not offer an unambiguous answer. Lev Menaše defined them as personifications of hearing and taste which, he suggests, once formed part of a series of depictions of the five senses that has not survived. In his opinion, their stylistic and typological models may be sought among the genre figures of the “Bamboccianti” group of artists in Rome and the followers of Ribera. Jure Mikuž identified rebuses with an erotic note in the works, the typological starting points and iconographic context of which can be found both in the Dutch and Flemish painting and printmaking of the early modern age and in literary tradition. We encounter the pretzel – grinningly displayed by the Man with a Pretzel – as a symbol of the bakers’ guild and as an attribute of Lent, while at the same time it alludes to fragility and is a symbol of (frequently complicated) love.
The slyly smiling Man with a Pretzel is direct, almost vulgar. An open, gap-toothed smile was considered to reflect coarseness and an inability to control one’s feelings, characteristics attributed to the lower, marginal and delinquent classes of society. We may assume that Bergant’s pictures, as comic genre figures, thoroughly amused his noble client and the elite company of which he formed part.
Possible models and influences could also be sought both in the works of the Spanish or related Neapolitan school of the followers of Ribera, and in northern Italian painting. The defects apparent in the figure of The Fowler, such as his misaligned jaw and stunted growth, call to mind the works of the northern Italian genre painters Giacomo Ceruti (1698–1767) and Giacomo Francesco Cipper, also known as Il Todeschini (1664–1736). The clearest typological and substantive parallels are actually to be found among contemporary paintings from central Europe, including the works of Karl Jakob Unterhuber (1700–1752).