I do my best to feature paintings by artists that people may not have come across before and I try not to feature the same artist too many times but sometimes I cannot help but revisit works by my favourite artists and today is no exception. My Daily Art Display featured painting today is entitled Celebrating the Birth by Jan Steen which he completed in 1664. I have showcased work by this artist three times before. On February 16th 2011 we looked at a work entitled In Luxury, Look Out. On April 27th 2011, I featured his painting The Effects of Intemperance and finally on August 26th 2011, I gave you The Life of Man so if you like today’s work why not go and have a look at some other of Jan Steen’s paintings.
Before us we have a simple scene of a couple celebrating the birth of their child, or do we? In fact there is more to this painting than a simple celebration of the birth of a baby. Look closely at the painting and see what is odd about the Steen’s depiction of the event and see if you can work out what is happening in the scene. I will give you a hint. Look at the man who stands behind the baby and the baby’s father. Before I reveal the secret about the painting let me first tell you a little about the artist, Jan Steen.
Jan Havickszoon Steen was born in the Dutch town of Leiden in 1626. He, like his artistic contemporary, Rembrandt, attended the local Latin School of Leiden. And a year later in 1646 he enrolled at the University of Leiden. His professional artistic training started the following year and came from the German-born, Dutch Golden Age painter, Nicolaes Knupfer. It is thought that he also could have studied with Adriaen van Ostade and it was this artist’s low-life genre work which was to influence Jan Steen’s early works. At the age of twenty-two Steen along with his artist friend Gabriel Metsu and a number of local painters founded the painters’ Guild of St Luke of Leiden.
In 1648, Jan Steen moved to The Hague and worked as an assistant at the workshop of the celebrated landscape painter, Jan van Goyen. Van Goyen was, like Jan Steen, born in Leiden. He had moved from Leiden to The Hague in 1631 where he set up his workshop. Steen was not only employed by van Goyen but was also taken in by van Goyen’s family and lived with him, his wife Annetie and their daughters. Jan Steen became very friendly with Margriet, one of van Goyen’s daughters and they married in 1649 and the couple went on to have eight children. Steen’s association with his father-in-law lasted until 1654.
In 1654 he and his family moved to Delft where he ran a brewery which his father had rented for him. It was called De Roscam (The Curry Comb) but although Steen had a great artistic talent his business acumen was sadly lacking and the brewery failed. In 1657 he went to live in Warmond, a town close to Leiden and it was here that he met and became friends with the artist, Frans van Mieris. Frans van Mieris was a painter of genre scenes which depicted the habits and actions of the wealthier classes. It was this type of art by van Mieris and the works of Te Borch that weaned Steen off his low-life genre paintings and influenced him to paint more elegant genre scenes. Jan Steen left Haarlem in 1660 and moved back to Haarlem where he stayed for the next ten years. In 1669, near the end of this stay his wife died and the following year his father passed away. After his father’s death in 1670 Jan returned once again to Leiden where he remained for the rest of his life. He remarried that year and his second wife, Maria van Egmont, gave Jan two children.
For the Dutch people, the year 1672 became known as the rampjaar(disaster year) as this was the year that saw the start of the Franco-Dutch War and the Third Anglo Dutch War, which culminated in the defeat of the Dutch States Army and large swathes of the Republic was conquered by the invading troops. Because of these wars the art market collapsed and Steen needed another source of income so in 1673 he opened a tavern. His work in the tavern meant that his artistic output diminished in his later years.
Jan Steen died on New Year’s Day 1679 in Leiden
And so let us go back to the featured painting. Have you worked out the “sub-plot” depicted in this painting yet? Steen is best known for his humorous genre scenes, warm hearted and animated works in which he treats life as a vast comedy of manners and this work of his is no different. We are looking at a lying-in room. Whenever the lady of the house was about to give birth, one of the rooms was set aside for this purpose. The lying-in room was used for the actual delivery, and later to receive visitors. The birth of a child was, as it is now, a cause for celebration. It is greeted with both happiness and pride and in the 17th century in the case of the birth of a son, it became even more of a celebration for economic reasons as a son would often carry on his father’s business and would inherit the family possessions.
In this painting Steen has depicted a group of revellers celebrating the birth of a child. One can imagine the elated atmosphere within the room with all its merriment and drinking. The majority of people in the room are women as men, including the father, were considered inappropriate interlopers in this female sanctuary. The mother is in the left background of the painting lying in her bed being fed some broth. Another woman sits at the end of the bed drinking to excess. The others present will probably be female relatives, maidservants and the midwife. Normally one would expect, as in most works of art depicting such an event, that the mother of the newborn baby would be the main focus of attention. However Steen has made the proud father the main focus of this painting. However he is not the only man in the painting. Look at the figure behind the baby. We see another man as he is about to creep out of the room. Actually it is a self-portrait of the artist himself. It was not simply to break tradition to see the two men in the painting but Steen wanted to convey a little information about what has happened and to the nature of the husband and wife’s relationship.
Look more carefully and you will see something which was not visible until the painting was cleaned in 1983. The man leaving the room has made a cheeky two-fingered gesture above the baby’s head. This gesture can be seen by all those in the room except the proud father. From the young man’s gesture, Steen has made us aware that the ‘father’ has been made a cuckold. The gesture illustrates the tradition of “cuckold’s horns, and that the horns, visible to all but the man himself, will grow on the head of a man whose wife has been unfaithful. The proud father stands right of centre having been presented with his child. His pride on the birth of his child is plain to see. He is totally unaware of the ridicule and stands before us, puffed up, beaming with pride as he shows off his child. Nobody seems shocked by this audacious gesture which tells us that everyone in the room appears to know what the man does not: that the child is not his.. There are other sexually symbolic inclusions in Steen’s painting to suggest not just sexual impropriety but implying the husband was impotent, such as the bed warming pan, which lays prominently on the floor in the foreground. The warming pan reminds us of the adage, the only warmth in the marriage bed is the warming pan. In the right foreground we see broken egg shells scattered on the floor and again this is a reminder that the phrase, cracking eggs into a pan, was a contemporary euphemism for sexual intercourse.
Steen has been very unkind with his depiction of the father in this portrait. We see him wearing an apron and carrying keys like a housekeeper would do, thus implying a lowering of his status in the household. We also see the old midwife at his shoulder demanding money for her services and to the right of the man, sat on a stool, is a maid with her hand out, seemingly demanding payment for making the celebratory broth. Steen’s final degrading of the man is his depiction of the limp and ineffectual sausage hanging by the fireplace which does not need me to explain the connotation of such an inclusion!!
There is a moralistic point to the painting. It is a warning tale of what happens when an older man marries a much younger woman. In a way Steen has no qualms about depicting the man as a cuckold. Maybe the modern saying of there’s no fool like an old fool has its roots way back in time.