Jan Steen arranges the various actors as though on a theatre stage. The gentle depth of the composition is based on a triangle, with the magnificently dressed young woman at its top point. Her clothing and seductive look identify her as a “loose-living” girl. She, however, is not the focus of the scene; that is provided by the lady of the house, who has fallen asleep at the table on the left. Her “absence” has resulted in the rest of the story: the dog is finishing the meat pie that was served on the table, one of the children is filching something from the cabinet on the wall (“opportunity makes the thief ”), the little girl’s brother is trying out a pipe, and the youngest child, sitting in his highchair, is playing carelessly with a string of pearls. His attention diverted to the side, a young man is trying to play a violin. Young people who continued to live at home were considered suspect in the popular culture of the Netherlands at the time. The prostitute in the foreground has already been mentioned: in a rovocative gesture she holds a filled glass between the legs of the man of the house, while he dismisses with a grin the admonishment of the nun (a Beguine?) standing on the right. The duck on the shoulder of the man next to her identifies him as a Quaker, who urges the reading of pious texts. Finally, the pig in the doorway to the kitchen is an allusion to another proverb: “Neither cast ye your pearls [here: roses] before swine”. Hanging above the heads of these sinners are the symbols of the penalty to be expected for unbridled, lustful behaviour: a sword and a crutch in a basket suspended from the ceiling. The painting’s traditional German title “Die verkehrte Welt” (“The Topsy-Turvy World”) is not completely in accordance with the content, because this is really a humorous warning against one of the seven deadly sins, luxuria extravagance, later lust). An interesting biographic detail: at times Steen had to earn a living by running an inn and a brewery.
© Cäcilia Bischoff, Masterpieces of the Picture Gallery. A Brief Guide to the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna 2010