Celebrating the Birth by Jan Steen

Celebrating the Birth by Jan Steen (1664)

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.

Sign of the cuckold

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.

The demand for money

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.

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 ?

The Effects of Intemperance by Jan Steen

The Effects of Intemperance by Jan Steen (c.1665)

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.