The Life of Man by Jan Steen

The Life of Man by Jan Steen (c.1665)

My Daily Art Display today is about two paintings and the reason I am looking at two is because the second one, which is a copy of the first by a different artist, is almost identical but not quite and it does show up certain details much clearer, which are harder to see on the original work by Jan Steen.  Sounds interesting? – Well then, read on !

Jan Havicksz Steen was born in Leiden around 1626.  He was the eldest son of the brewer and former grain merchant, Havick Jansz Steen and his wife, Elisabeth Capiteyn, the daughter of a city clerk.  Steen was brought up in a well-to-do Catholic family home.  His forefathers and parents had run the tavern, The Red Halbert, for two generations.  Jan Steen, like his contemporary Rembrandt, went to the Latin School and later became a student in the Department of Letters at Leiden University.  Art historians question whether he actually studied at the university as he never attained a degree.  It is thought that he may have enrolled at the university to take advantage of the privileges bestowed on students, such as exemption from serving in the civic gurad and not having to pay the municipal excise tax on beer and wine !  His artistic education was overseen by the German painter, Nicolaes Knupfer,  a specialist in history paintings and produced works based on stories from the Bible, from Greek and Roman history and from mythology.   He was to have a great influence on Jan Steen.  Two other painters who had some bearing on Steen’s future artistic career were the brothers Adriaen and Isaac van Ostade, both of who lived in nearby Utrecht

In March 1648, at the age of twenty-two, Jan Steen and Gabriel Metsu, a fellow artist, founded the painters’ Guild of St Luke at Leiden.  It was shortly after that time that, Jan Steen went to The Hague where he met and became assistant to Jan van Goyen, the prolific landscape artist.  Within a short space of time Steen left his lodgings and moved into van Goyen’s home.  In October 1648 Jan Steen married van Goyen’s daughter Margriet and the couple went on to have six children, their first child, a son Thadeus was born in 1651.   Van Goyen and Steen worked together for a further five years until 1654 at which time Steen and his family moved to Delft and to supplement his income from his art, he rented a brewery for 400 guilders a month, known as De Slang (The Serpent), also sometimes known as De Roskam (The Curry Comb) which was on the Oude Delft canal,  but the enterprise met with little success.

The year 1654 was to be a momentous and a tragic year for Delft and its inhabitants.  This was the year in which The Delft Explosion occurred on October 12th,  when a gunpowder store exploded, destroying much of the city. Over a hundred people were killed and thousands wounded.  Thirty tons of gunpowder had been stockpiled in a former Clarissen Convent in the Doelenkwartier district of the city.   On that morning the keeper of the magazine, which stored the explosives, opened up the store and an enormous explosion followed.   The death toll could have been much worse but fortunately many of the people of Delft had gone to a market at the nearby town of Schieden.  One of the casualties of the explosion was the artist Carl Fabritius, many of whose paintings were also destroyed in the explosion and fire.  After this disaster and the fall-out from the First Anglo-Dutch War, the art market in the city almost collapsed and sales of Steen’s works fell sharply.  Once again Jan Steen moved his family.

Jan Steen, following his departure from Delft in 1657, moved around the country, living for a time in Warmond, a small village north of Leiden and in 1660 moved to Haarlem where the next year Steen became a member of the Haarlem Guild of St Luke.   In May 1669 his wife died and the following year his father died.  Jan Steen inherited the family house in Leiden (his mother had died a year earlier) and he moved his family back home.  He returned to Leiden in 1672 when again he opened a tavern.  The year 1672 in Holland was known as the rampjaar (“disaster year”).   In that year, the Republic of the Seven United Provinces was after the outbreak of the Franco-Dutch War and the Third Anglo-Dutch War attacked by both England, France, and the invading armies very quickly defeated the Dutch States Army and conquered a large part of the Republic.  Steen’s unsuccessful brewery business and the fall in his art sales led him into debt which was further exacerbated by his heavy drinking.

In April 1673 he re-married.  His second wife was Maria Dircksdr van Egmont, the widow of a Leiden bookseller, who soon after gave birth and the forty-seven year old artist became a father yet again.  Jan van Steen died penniless in 1679, aged fifty-three.  After his death, his wife had to sell most of their possessions and her husband’s paintings to pay off his many debts.  Maria died eight years later.

My Daily Art Display’s featured painting by Jan Steen is entitled The Life of Man which he completed around 1665.  In the painting before us we glimpse into the busy bar of a tavern full of people of various ages with one thing in common – they are all there to enjoy themselves.  They create their own enjoyment through making music, singing and playing tric-trac, the popular dice game of that time.     In the centre of the painting we see a young woman, dressed in blue and white, seated, turning away from an older man who is offering her an oyster.  We can see by the smile on her face that maybe her initial rebuff of his gift may soon be reversed.  Behind the pair we can see a hunchbacked lute player, who looks on and seems happy to ridicule the mismatched pair.

To the right of the picture we see a young woman and another lute player sitting together at a table.  This relationship seems to be prospering, if the sultry look she is giving the musician is anything to go by.  It would appear that the owners of the tavern are use to preparing and selling large quantities of oysters, a supposed aphrodisiac, to their clientele.

As I have said many times before I like paintings where a lot of things are going on as every time I look at one of these paintings I notice something different.   Cast your eyes around the tavern scene and see what you can discover.  To the left we can see an old man eating an oyster and on his knee he has a small child who is wriggling from his grasp trying to grab the tail of a parrot.  In the central foreground we see a small girl cradling a small dog in her apron and by the table on the right and sitting on the floor is a small boy who is trying to teach a kitten to stand on its hind legs.  It is interesting to focus on the small boy in the right foreground, with the blue coat and red hat, who holds a basket of bread rolls under his arm.  Jan Steen has painted this figure with his back to us and has used this technique in other paintings and what it does is to get us to look at where the boy is looking and thus the artist gets the viewer to focus his or her eye into the depths of the picture.

Across the top of the painting we have what looks like a raised curtain and what Steen wants us to accept that we are not just looking at any old tavern but in some ways we are looking at a stage and the curtain is a theatre curtain raised to show the cast of players.  In Shakespeare’s play, As You Like It, there is the famous line:

All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players:

They have their exits and their entrances;

And one man in his time plays many parts,

 As the painting is by a Dutch artist maybe we should look at the Dutch saying by Joost van den Vondel:

De wereld is een schouwtoneel
Elk speelt zijn rol en krijgt zijn deel.

Which translated roughly means:

“  The world‘s a stage
Each plays his role and gets his share”

And so maybe Jan Steen wants us to look at this scene as more than just people in a tavern but as “the world stage “and the people we see in the tavern are just players.

The Life of Man by Reinier Craeyvanger (c.1840)

And so I come to my second painting which is also entitled The Life of Man but the artist is Reiner Craeyvanger.  It is obviously a copy of Jan Steen’s work but I am showing it for two reasons.  Firstly, when I was researching the painting by Jan Steen I kept reading about “a boy lying in the loft above, blowing bubbles”.  I searched Jan Steen’s painting for hours looking for the boy and couldn’t find him and convinced myself that the picture I had was a cropped version of the original.  However when I saw Craeyvanger’s copy I immediately saw the boy and when I looked back at Steen’s painting I could just make out a fuzzy image of the boy.  See if you can find him.

Boy on balcony blowing bubbles

The boy is laying there blowing bubbles and next to him is a skull.  From this we must believe that both are symbolic and the message is, that like a bubble which will suddenly burst, our life may suddenly come to an end and we die and of course the addition of a skull which we often see in Vanitas painting symbolises that death is always around the corner.  Although it is not very clear in the attached pictures the painting on the rear wall has a gallows in it and that again is harking back to life and death.

There are two other interesting things in the painting.  Firstly we see broken egg shells scattered on the floor which could be symbolically interpreted as the frailty of life itself, and secondly, look at the right background and the old woman staring into a tankard.  She is a kannekijker,  which literally translated means a “pot looker” or “someone who looks into a pot”.  This gesture was a well-known literary and artistic convention of the time that signified the habitual drinker or drunkard.  I am sure there is more symbolism incorporated in this painting, such as why has Steen depicted a pot with a spoon and a hat in the foreground?  How are we to interpret these objects or maybe there is nothing to interpret!

However I will leave you with a question.  Although Craeyvanger has carefully copied Jan Steen’s painting, what is the main difference between his work and that of Jan Steen’s painting?  I am not talking about colours, tones or technique.  It is more obvious than that, something is missing from the later painting, but what ?

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About jonathan5485

Just someone who is interested and loves art. I am neither an artist nor art historian but I am fascinated with the interpretaion and symbolism used in paintings and love to read about the life of the artists and their subjects.
This entry was posted in Art, Art Blog, Art display, Art History, Dutch painters, Jan Steen and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The Life of Man by Jan Steen

  1. mary says:

    The lute player.

  2. Robert .D says:

    Perhaps also interesting to ask why is something missing/different in the 2 paintings what is the meaning of the omission /change

  3. jonathan5485 says:

    The coloured drawing by Reinier Craeyvanger, which for some reason omitted the hunchbacked lute player, was restored in 1957 and the missing musician made a comeback !

  4. Richard says:

    Hi, Do you know the size of the Craeyvanger copy of the Jan Steen original . Thanks Richard

  5. Richard says:

    Hi, do you know the dimensions of the Crayvanger version of the Jan Steen original? thanks Richard

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