Jan Havickszoon Steen

JAN HAVICKSZOON STEEN (1626 – 1679) Leiden, Netherlands

On the left is one of the few self portraits in which Steen displays himself in formal attire. His art generally portrays him as a man who is in love with life, which is more accurately displayed by the joyful rendition of him playing the lute in the self portrait on the right.

Self Portrait

Jan Steen Playing the Lute

Steen’s characterisation is one of his strengths. The expressions captured in the next two pictures epitomise the Christmas spirit and the chaos of family gatherings. The characters in Rhetoricians at a Window also tell a story. Rhetoricians were drama and literary groups and here we have a member reading from a script, the author of which is probably the man looking over the reader’s shoulder. Unseen by the author is the look of glee (it’s either very good or is total drivel) while on the right could be either a critic listening intently or a dragooned member of the public who appears bored out of his mind. In the background is a jester who is milking the situation for all it is worth. The scene is set in a tavern – there is a figure in the background on the left drinking from a tankard.

Feast of St Nicholas

The Rhetoricians at a Window

He had a somewhat ‘divine’ sense of humour, portraying biblical scenes against 17th century Holland sometimes even using inscriptions to make sure the point of the picture was understood! A picture is worth a thousand words and each of his pictures tells a story and his art is well worth exploring!

The Dissolute Household

Tucked in amongst all the merry revelry, Steen moralised in a subtle way, Here is the description as written up on the Metropolitan Museum site: This painting depicts a “Jan Steen household”, a standard by which all later family dysfunction may be measured. The lady of the house tramples a Bible while having her wineglass refilled. Her husband and the maid join hands in a gesture suggesting service beyond the call of duty. The boy in blue fends off a beggar at the door, thus recalling the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, in which the more fortunate figure goes to hell. Fate hangs over the family’s head in the form of a basket holding a sword and switch (signifying justice and punishment), a crutch and a can (forecasting poverty) and a wooden clapper (used by lepers and the plague-stricken). In this (sixteen-) sixties sitcom, Steen himself stars as the father, his wife Margriet van Goyen as mom, and their sons Thaddeus and (next to grandma) Cornelis as themselves.
‘Beware of Luxury’ is of particular interest as interpretations vary depending on the perspective of the viewer. It has been used by the US National Library of Medicine comparing 17th century times with modern living and pointing out the similarities with regard to hygienic practices.

On the other hand, it is also a painting full of allegorical meaning as interpreted in a well researched blog by jonathan5485.

“In Luxury Look Out” or “Beware of Luxury”
Steen’s landscapes, of which he did not do many, are invariably peopled as illustrated by “A Winter Scene” and “Game of Skittles”.
A Winter Scene Game of Skittles