Jan Steen

Jan Steen

One of the best genre painters of 17th century Netherlands was Jan Steen. In terms of painting skills and popularity, he would be line up beside Rembrandt, Johannes Vermeer and Frans Hals respectively. His capabilities in painting humorous and vivid works made him famous among his circles and patrons. It is said that his painting style was heavily influenced by the Haarlem School, under which he received his formal artistic training.

Jan Steen’s style is to capture the human emotion and psyche as he dealt with them in his everyday life. Compared to his predecessors such as Rembrandt and Vermeer, Steen had a better way of putting psychological meaning into his works because of his satirical take on human mannerisms and nature. As such, one can say that he was such a sensitive man while being inquisitive at the same time.

During the 17th century, Jan Steen was the only Dutch painter who has had the interest in observing the relations of adults with younger children and then putting them together in a charming and heartwarming painting. His enthusiasm in appreciating humans the way they respond to a situation they’re in (i.e. parties, festivals, games, work, etc.) inspired him to paint them in an exquisite and realistic manner.

In most cases, Steen would paint sceneries in his local town, taverns and in smallish rooms. Few examples included A Burgomaster of Delft and his Daughter (1654), The Feast of St. Nicholas (1668), The Merry Family (1668), and The Egg Dance: Peasants in an Inn.

Early Life of Jan Steen

Jan Steen was born on 1626 in Leiden. He grew up in an affluent family whose business was a brewery and a tavern called The Red Halbert. Due to the financial capability of his parents, he was sent to a Latin school to study and soon entered the Leiden University.

After his university days, he briefly stayed at Haarlem where he was introduced to Nicolas Knupfer, a German artist specializing in history and allegorical paintings related to the way of life in Utrecht. Knupfer was Steen’s master for a while, and at the age of 22, he became a master and co-founder along with Gabriel Metsu of the painters guild of Leiden.

Early Success

Around 1648, Steen drew inspiration from the works of Molenaers and Halses. He was particularly inspired by the Baroque paintings of Isaac van Ostade and Adriaen van Ostade who were painters of the rural scenes in Haarlem. Even though he had been a master in his own right, he was still eager to learn more about his craft; thus, he decided to work for Jan van Goyen as an assistant.

The said stint required him to move to The Hague where he would meet Goyen’s daughter, Margriet, and married her soon after. On October 1649, Steen and Margriet got married and began a comfortable life alongside their 8 children. During the first few years of their marriage, Steen would have been working for Goyen still and then decided to move out of Hague to base in Delft in 1654.

In July 1654, Steen moved to Delft together with his growing family. He opened a business called The Snake, a brewery that operated for five years but due to the explosion in Delft that badly hurt the local economy his business went downhill. However, post-explosion period, he was still able to paint the Burgomaster of Delft and his Daughter in 1654, which genre is quite difficult to distinguish because it draws a thin line between portrait and genre painting.

Around 1656, Margriet’s father died and they left them with debts. The business almost went bankrupt but thanks to the response of Steen’s father who was there to help them through the dire financial situation. Moving on with his life, Steen moved to Warmond, Leiden in 1656. He stayed there until 1660 and then went to Haarlem from 1660 to 1670, doing some major commissions for various clients.

His stint in Haarlem was considered as the most productive years of his career. This was the time when he would have produced high quality works, including portraits of his family. However, in 1669, Margriet died and this caused him a big amount of fortune to be paid. Because of his financial shortcomings, he was forced to give up some of his properties such as his house and pictures to the apothecary and placed them for auction.

Back to Leiden and Later Years

In 1670, Jan Steen found himself again in Leiden where he would spend his advanced years later. Steen couldn’t remain as productive as ever because of the Year of Disaster in 1672 when the Dutch art market had collapsed. Therefore, he tried to open another tavern in Leiden which was quite a successful feat. In 1673, he married Maria van Egmont with whom he had one child.

In 1674, he was appointed as President of the St. Luke’s Guild he had co-founded. There, he met Frans van Mieris who was also a great friend and drinking buddy to him. In 1679, at the age of 52, Jan Steen died due to an unknown illness and was buried in Pieterskerk at a family grave.

Style of Painting and Theme

According to Jan Steen’s critics, his works are what one could describe as “unstable” because of its uneven quality. While he had an unquestionable talent in painting, which is often attributed to his ability to execute intricate compositions, the selection of number of figures (often too many) must have made his compositions look confusing.

His best works are those that depict comedy and satire characteristics, and those paintings are usually composed of two to three figures only. He obviously made some adjustments in his subject matter as he developed his own style of painting. For example, his The Menagerie (1660) was of great quality and execution. It depicts a little girl in a seated position while offering milk to a lamb. This figure is the focal point of the frame, while there’s a man approaching in from the right side with a handful of eggs. Then there’s a dwarf at the upper left section casting upon his loving sight at the little girl. The foreground and the background are decorated with flying animals like a dove. Every character in The Menagerie was given great attention by the painter.

Jan Steen has done a great job in painting large-scale works that feature a large group of families, friends and drinking companions. He made sure that he would be able to capture the significant events in an ordinary day of a Dutch be it they are in the mood for merry-making or formal gathering. For instance, the birthday celebration of William of Orange of Holland was documented by Steen through painting.

He perceived William of Orange as the champion of the poor so painted a patriotic rally. The scene was set in an inn where the figures are in act of merry-making. Steen composed each individual with great animation in their faces and gestures. Everyone seems to ploy a dramatic act; one man is portraying a knightly stance while the other figures are playing cards.

However, art historians are not sure why Steen made use of platters and caldrons as his foreground when they don’t seem to serve any purpose. This is one common problem in Steen’s large-scale paintings; because of the elaborate composition he failed to recognize which characters are more important than the other; thus, somewhere in his group paintings, there is an awkward part.

Jan Steen was more successful in executing smaller paintings, where there is pictorial unity in the works without sacrificing the realistic human expression that he’d likely want to display. In Fight between Card Players in a Tavern (1664), he set up his figures in a dramatic fighting situation. One of the card players flipped the table and he is about to kick another man. The other two figures are trying to stop him from this violent attempt while the supporting details which are the falling pieces of furniture and accessories matched the heated situation.

Another evidence of his brilliant artistic talent is the Bad Company (1665). This work showed his abilities in showing moral lessons through a painting. The said art work featured a drunken man that collapsed in the lap of a woman in blue green dress. The scene resembles the Prodigal Son story in the Bible; Luke 15:11-32.

The other woman at the left side of the picture is a prostitute who is also trying to take advantage of the drunken man by stealing his silver pocket watch. The thief passes the watch over to the procuress that looked like a witch with her pointed nose and staff. The Bad Company is trying to imply to its audience is that committing to a sinful life such as substance abuse may lead to bigger misfortunes. Clearly, Jan Steen has made a successful attempt in showing this moral lesson by making sure that every detail is in line with his motive.