by Mary Elizabeth Podles
Jan Steen's 1663 painting of family merriment is a feast for all the senses. We can taste the oysters, fruit, and wine; smell the freshly peeled lemon and the pipe smoke; feel the Persian carpet, the wealthy wife's silks, furs, and velvet, and her dog's shiny coat; hear the old woman singing and the dulcet accompaniment of the bagpipes—all spread like a feast for the eyes, a theater piece in a shallow, stage-like space. In the largely Protestant Holland of the time, painters turned from specifically religious subject matter to more secular themes: landscape, portrait, still life, and genre scenes like this one taken from daily life.
Like anything, subject matter goes in and out of fashion according to the times. Scenes like these enjoyed an uptick in popularity in the nineteenth century, since, like those of the Impressionists, they gave the stuff of ordinary doings the weight of high art. In the twenty-first century, we tend to look at genre scenes like these as historical records, video stills freezing a moment in seventeenth-century real time. For example, in his book Vermeer's Hat, Timothy Brook calls upon various props within Vermeer's popular paintings to open doors onto aspects of Dutch history that might otherwise have made dull reading.
Good & Bad Examples
Art historians shake their heads. Literal readings are seldom enough. In their own time, seventeenth-century paintings even of worldly subjects were generally meant to point to a moral truth, often in a veiled way. Or, as in Steen's painting, a not so veiled way: the song sheet from which the grandmother is singing is clearly titled, "Soo voer gesongen, soo na gepepen," roughly, "As the old sing, so pipe the young." This painting is about setting a good example. What children see is what they will parrot. There is even a parrot at the upper left to remind us. And at the upper right, a boy plays the bagpipes along with his grandmother's song, punning directly on the motto's verb, "to pipe."
A similar pun, and a bad example, is going on just below the boy, as the father of this family laughingly offers a little boy a puff on his pipe. In a bit of self-deprecating humor, Jan Steen has made this bad father a self-portrait, and the laughing woman topping up her wineglass is his wife Margriet van Goyen. There is evidence that a certain amount of wine has already been consumed: the rather large carboy on the windowsill is half empty, there is a jug at the wife's feet, and a servant holds another aloft to give her a refill. There is also beer on offer at the window.
Furthermore, the wife's inhibitions, as well as her bodice, seem to be loosened. The oysters set at her table were thought to be an aphrodisiac; the birds above her head may be another pun (the verb "to bird" was contemporary slang for sexual activity); the lapdog could connote sensuality—and then there is the footwarmer.
In the seventeenth century, collections of improving moral maxims called emblem books were a popular literary genre. They consisted of a series of emblematic images, often of simple household objects, each accompanied by a clever rhyme pointing to a moral lesson. In the best known of these emblem books, Roemer Visscher's Sinnepoppen, the footwarmer is called "The Ladies' Darling," and the accompanying poem comments obliquely on the dangers of this item. The connotations hardly need to be spelled out: the footwarmer contains a pan of hot coals that release warm air through the holes on the top, thus sending a waft of warm air up a lady's skirts (but a wayward spark could cause a disaster). And so, in a painting, a Dutch artist could include an emblematic object like a footwarmer and leave its meaning ambiguous. It could imply sexual excess or misconduct, or, if it is set aside or used with caution, it could be an emblem of chastity.
But to continue with our cast of characters: to the lady's left is an old man, presumably the singing woman's husband and the grandfather of the children present. He is wearing a paternity cap, the hat a new father wore between his child's birth and its baptism. The child is to his left, in the arms of a nurse, and presumably this feast is the baby's christening party. The father has taken off the cap and the grandfather has put it on. Obviously he considers it a great joke to be the patriarch of such an unruly pagan brood.
More to the Picture
Jan Steen's pictures of such scenes of merriment—baptisms, Epiphany feasts, St. Nicholas' Day, and the like—were extremely well-received, and to this day among the Dutch, the phrase "a Jan Steen household" means a chaotic, madcap, and messy establishment.
But the Dutch do the Steens an injustice. Jan Steen was an official in the painters' guild; he worked with the distinguished landscapist Jan van Goyen and married his daughter; he raised a family of eight and was a diligent and prolific artist who painted more than 800 canvases over his lifetime.
Maybe there is still more in this picture. Moving from the individual characters to the overall composition, we notice that there are two sets of crossing diagonals set up, one at the right where the bagpipes meet the diagonal of the pipe continuing up to the servant's hand, and the other to the left where the lines of arms, shoulders, and the new baby converge and meet at the woman's wineglass.
Further, if we start at the spiral of the lemon peel and follow it outward, there seems to be a circular frame set up around the servant's pouring of the wine from a great height into the glass, an action requiring a certain sober dexterity. Not surprisingly, this gesture, found at the center of the painting, is an emblem of sobriety and temperance, and is the hidden moral lesson of the painting. Temperance is at the center; the chaotic spiral of activity all around is meant to convey, "Don't do as I do, but do as I say." •
Mary Elizabeth Podles is the retired curator of Renaissance and Baroque art at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. She and her husband Leon, a Touchstone senior editor, have six children and live in Naples, Florida.
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