Thursday, November 13, 2014

Jan Steen

Beware of Luxury
oil on canvas
105 x 145 cm
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria

“Life is a stage; we play our part and receive our reward,” wrote Vondel, the great poet of the Netherlands, expressing the moral preoccupation of 17th-century Dutch culture. The 17th century was a time of geographic exploration and economic prosperity for the famed lowlands. Laboriously claimed from the sea, crisscrossed by canals and spotted with windmills, the tiny country produced a vibrant bourgeois society with an astonishing artistic legacy, in what has been called the Dutch golden age. Jan Steen, along with Rembrandt, Vermeer, Frans Hals, and many others who populated the local guilds, brilliantly chronicled the emergence of the distinct civilization that Oliver Cromwell said preferred “gain to Godliness”.

Jan Steen (c.1625-1679), born in the Netherlandish town of Leyden, the first son of successful Catholic brewers who ran the tavern The Red Halbert for two generations, was one of the most prominent Dutch genre painters during The Dutch Golden Age of painting. He was known for his humor and vivid rich colors. He traveled and worked throughout the Netherlands in towns such as Delft, Warmond and Haarlem, settling eventually back in Leyden. In his final years he acquired the position of president at the Guild of Saint Luke at Leyden.

His genre paintings were full of life, humor and insights into everyday life. His vivid depiction of domestic scenes survives even today in the Dutch proverb a Jan Steen household, meaning a busy and somewhat messy scene. His themes are usually invested with his own humorous, moralizing or satirical comment. He can at times play the showman, tweaking the beholder's elbow lest he miss something. Behind his pictures one feels the genial, sensitive and quizzical man. Among his c.800 works also are historic paintings, biblical work, still lifes, portraits and landscapes. Some 350 works have survived the ages.