Jan Steen: a born storyteller


Jan Havicksz Steen (c. 1625-1679) was a born storyteller with an obvious sense of humour. His narrative urge is reflected in the huge variety of themes represented in his oeuvre. Not surprisingly, Steen has gained a reputation as one of the most popular seventeenth-century artists.         

What a light-hearted household scene! During the 17th century, genre paintings – scenes of ordinary people engaged in everyday activities – were very popular. All kinds of moralizing messages were often hidden in them. Such paintings served simultaneously to ‘educate and entertain’. Jan Steen urged his viewers to set a good example for their children.

This figure is a self-portrait of the artist. Jan Steen gazes out at us while playing a bagpipe, an instrument associated with fools during the 17th century.

The saying on this piece of paper translates as: ‘As the old sing, so the young pipe’ (peep or twitter). Here Steen is suggesting that children quickly adopt the poor example set by their parents.

Over the centuries, Steen’s paintings have inspired viewers to extrapolate humorous stories from his implicit narratives, along with many attempts to discover his sources in comic literature.

This man and woman are so drunk that they are oblivious to the fact that they are being robbed.

Their foolishness is underscored by the print on the partition, which shows an owl. Owls were considered foolish in the seventeenth century because they could not see in daylight. The message is clear: the drunk couple are just as blind as the owl.

Steen’s output was huge. Best known are his genre pictures of merry companies, but he also painted portraits and historical scenes. This painting is a portrait of two of Jan Steen’s neighbours in Delft. The evident wealth of the father and daughter contrasts with the rags of the woman and the boy, who are begging for alms.

The feast of St Nicholas (Sinterklaas or Santa Claus) is a children’s holiday. Since the Middle Ages, Dutch children have placed a shoe by the hearth on 5 December, hoping to find it filled with candy and presents the next morning.

Naughty children were given a roe, or a rod or switch, like this crying boy. The moral of the picture: ‘you better be good for goodness sake’.

An older woman looks on from the background. Representatives of various generations occur often in Steen’s paintings. The elders are meant to set a good example.

The suggestion that his paintings offer a glimpse into Steen’s own life is perhaps one of the reasons why even today, three hundred years after the artist’s death, his pictures remain every bit as fascinating to viewers.
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