“When the cat’s away, the mice will play.” This proverb seems to be illustrated by the four comical rats dancing ring-a-ring-o’-roses. The brown shape in the background, which resembles the head of a fish or monster, helps to solve the puzzle. It is the fragment of a carved table base and reveals that the painting was cut out of a larger canvas. Scenes of animals parodying human behaviour are frequently encountered in Flemish painting. In that context, mice and rats are generally associated with vices such as drunkenness and gluttony.
Paul Bottenwieser was an art dealer in Berlin, about whom surprisingly little information survives. He gave the painting ‘The Dance of the Rats’ to the Städel Museum in 1922. This extraordinary picture holds a strong fascination for many viewers.