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Woman at her Toilet

Jan Steen1663

Royal Collection Trust, UK

Royal Collection Trust, UK

The painting is an outstanding example of Jan Steen's art in all respects. The elaborate treatment of subject-matter reveals a profusion of references that would have been readily recognisable to his contemporaries, attesting to the painter's intelligent use of symbolism. A young woman is shown partially undressed, with an unlaced jacket, putting on a stocking. A lapdog lies on her unmade bed, by which there is a chamber pot, and her shoes are scattered on the floor. The figure is alluring and looks straight out at the viewer with an inviting expression. Seduction is her intent. The viewer, however, is kept out of the room itself, which lies beyond an imposing arched doorway imbued with classical features. Two columns with Corinthian capitals rest on bases decorated with cartouches, whilst the arch itself is adorned with swags and a weeping cherub. There is a marked and deliberate contrast between the interior and the exterior, to the extent that 'Woman at her Toilet' is clearly to be read as an allegorical painting. The arched doorway is a threshold that no sensible person should cross, however strong the temptation. The arch represents moral probity emphasised by the symbolism of the sunflower (constancy), the grapevines (domestic virtue) and the weeping cherub (chastised profane love). Once in the room, the viewer is confronted by a host of vanitas objects: a lute with a broken string, a skull intertwined with a vine, a candle with the flame extinguished, and a jewellery box with its lid wide open. These all signify the transient effects of misdirected sensual pleasure. Even the act of pulling on a stocking had a clear message which is found in the emblem book by Roemer Visscher, Sinnepoppen (1614): namely that impetuous behaviour such as pulling on a stocking too quickly could result in its being holed, just as yielding to sensuality could lead to ruin. Steen implies that to pass through the arch would be to risk the loss of virtue. There is, therefore, a sense in which the interior amounts to pagan love and the exterior to spiritual love. The artist's ingenuity does not end with the images, but extends to word play: the Dutch word for stocking (kous) used as slang meant fornication and the Dutch word for chamber pot (piespot) used in conjunction with kous (i.e. pieskous) was in slang a pejorative word for women. Similarly, to appreciate the significance of the artist's signature on the column it is necessary to realise that steen in Dutch means stone. On a technical basis, the quality of the painting is remarkable for the treatment of the light, particularly in the room itself, and in the meticulous depiction of the still-life objects (the bed, the floor, the ceiling, the chandelier) and the foreshortening of the door. 'Woman at her Toilet' was in private collections in Amsterdam and Brussels during the second half of the 18th century. It was acquired by George IV in 1821. A variant of the composition from c.1659-60 in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, emphasises the narrative elements and eschews allegory. Signed on left-hand column: JSteen (JS in monogram) and dated on right-hand column: 1663

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  • Title: Woman at her Toilet
  • Creator: Jan Steen
  • Date Created: 1663
  • Type: Painting
  • Rights: Supplied by Royal Collection Trust / (c) HM Queen Elizabeth II 2012
  • External Link: http://www.rct.uk/collection/404804
  • Medium: Oil on Panel
  • Provenance: Aquired by George IV in 1821
  • Object description: Through an open door behind a stone arch a woman is seen seated on an unmade bed pulling on her stocking, (6 toes), with lapdog beside her; to right, a table with candle; in the foreground, a lute with a broken string, a music book and a skull.

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