I have featured many paintings, mainly by Dutch or Flemish artists, which try and have an embedded moral message in their works of art. Often it is about the dangers of drinking too much, which is a subject painters from our present time may find very topical. My Daily Art Display today features one such 17th century painting entitled The Effects of Intemperance by the Dutch painter Jan Steen.
Jan Havickszoon Steen was born in 1626 in Leiden a town in the Netherlands and was a contemporary of the great Rembrandt van Rijn. He received his artistic education from the German painter of the Dutch Golden Age, Niclaes Knupfer who gained a reputation for his historical and figurative scenes of Utrecht. At the age of twenty-two Steen joined the Saint Lukes Guild of Painters in Leiden. Steen then moved to The Hague where he lodged in the household of the prolific landscape painter Jan van Goyen. Soon after, he married Margriet, the daughter of van Goyen. Jan and his father-in-law worked together closely for the next five years. Then he moved and went to live in Warmond and later Haarlem. His wife died in 1669 and his father-in-law passed away a year later. Steen returned to Leiden re-married and had two children and remained there until his death in 1679 at the age of 53.
So back to today’s featured painting which is a pictorial moral tale of the dangers of insobriety. The painting illustrates well the Dutch proverb “De Wijn is een spotter” translated means: Wine is a mocker, in other words wine (or drinking it in excess) will make a fool of you. Although we see the children misbehaving the onus of guilt is placed squarely on the shoulders of the adults.
The main character of the painting is a woman who we see sitting slumped on the steps of her house sleeping off the effects of having drunk too much alcohol. The overturned flagon of wine lies on the floor and despite the noise and antics of the children she doesn’t wake. She is being portrayed as the neglectful mother. She is totally unaware of what is happening around her. However, she is no peasant. Look at her clothes. These are not ragged and threadbare. The fur-trimmed jacket, in fact, looks both expensive and stylish. Maybe the moral of the tale is that an excess of alcohol can affect rich and poor alike. Her comatose state is going to cause a disaster as we see that her lit pipe is just about to slide from her fingers on to her dress. The hem of her dress rests perilously close to the rim of the small clay brazier by her side which she has been using to keep her pipe alight and soon her clothes will surely catch fire. It should also be remembered that at this time in the Netherlands most houses were of wood construction and fire had become a great hazard of life for those living in these dwellings.
The child behind her is stealthily filching the purse from the pocket of her dress, watching her carefully in case she stirs. Again we are reminded of the Dutch proverb which states “opportunity makes the thief”. This painting, in some ways, mirrors Pieter Bruegel’s Netherlandish Proverbs but on a smaller scale. Look at the girl kneeling in front of the comatose woman. Maybe it is her eldest daughter. She is offering the parrot a drink of wine from a glass. The girl looks unsteady and her face is flushed. Maybe she too has imbibed to excess. Are we being reminded that the sins of the mother will be passed on to the child?
Next to the mother we see a boy clutching a bunch of roses. He is throwing them to the pig which is busy snuffling around the legs of the woman in search of food. We know of the biblical proverb “ Nether caste ye youre pearles before swine” meaning that it is a worthless gesture of offering items of quality to those who aren’t cultured enough to appreciate them. However the Dutch proverb doesn’t talk about pearls but instead – rose buds. So what we are seeing in the painting is the rose-strewn pig, which simply symbolises how people waste what they have.
To the right of the mother we see three small children feeding a meat pie to the cat. Again, this is highlighting the folly of waste. It is interesting to note what is hanging above the drunken woman’s head. It is a basket, in which there is a pair of crutches and a birch. This is to be a reminder of what happens if you throw money away and mismanage your finances. The crutch is a reminder of life as a beggar and the birch is a salutary warning of what happens if you are hauled to court because of bad debts. Look back at My Daily Art Display of February 16th and Jan Steen’s painting entitled In Luxury, Look Out, in which the artist had depicted a similar scenario and the same moral tale that is being depicted by the artist in today’s painting. In it we can see the same basket hanging above the miscreant.
Take a look at the background on the right hand side of the painting. Here we see a man, maybe the husband of the drunken woman, sitting in the garden on a bench with a buxom young serving wench on his knee. He is oblivious to what is going on around him and prefers to carouse with the young girl.
The Dutch painter and biographer of artists from the Dutch Golden Age, Arnold Houbraken, wrote about Jan Steen, recording that the household of Steen himself was both “riotous and disorganised” and that Steen, not being able to bring in enough money from his paintings ran an inn but Houbraken cynically pointed out that Steen’s best customer was himself! However maybe the facts do not bear out the biographer’s assertions for Steen completed over 1400 pictures in a span of 30 years, so could he possibly have had time to waste by drinking in his inn? In yesterdays offering I spoke about artists liking to incorporate their own image into their paintings and Steen was no different. He would even add his wife’s image into some of his bawdy pub scenes and she, rather than being flattered by her inclusion, would claim that her husband was always showing her as a “horny tart, a matchmaker or a drunken whore”! It could be that she was the model for the drunken woman in today’s painting.
The chaos which reigns in this painting is similar to the themes in many of his household scenes and “a Steen household” is a Dutch phrase which means a household which is a badly managed and in total chaos.