Century Magazine/Volume 47/Issue 2/Old Dutch Masters. Jan Steen

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There is a portrait of Jan Steen, by himself, in the Ryks Museum at Amsterdam, which is impressive. It is a strong, handsome, and refined face, three-quarter view; his eyes are turned toward the beholder, who is confronted with a highly intellectual, serious, and almost stern countenance, the very reverse of the drunken profligate and roistering idler he is represented to have been by early chroniclers. Happily, all writers are now agreed in denouncing the great injustice done him by his former biographers. A glance, however, at this sober visage, with its eyebrows partly knit, as if in grave rebuke of his falsifiers, is all the proof one needs in vindication of his character, even if we were not aware that he painted upward of five hundred pictures, most of which are of rare merit, during the short thirty-odd years of his working life. That so incessant and assiduous a toiler could yet find time to mingle with the jovial and the bibulous, is an evidence of the soundness of his heart, rather than of any moral defect.

Steen was born at Leyden, in 1626, nineteen years after his kinsman Rembrandt, and, displaying precocious talent for drawing, was early placed under one Nicolaus Knüpfer, a German painter at Utrecht. After this he is supposed to have gone to Haarlem, and to have entered the studio of Adrian van Ostade. Steen’s last master was Van Goyen, of The Hague, whose daughter, Margaretha, he married there in 1649; he had been enrolled in the Painters’ Guild at Leyden in the previous year. From this period till 1672, when many of his best works were painted, he divided his time between Haarlem, Leyden, and The Hague. One of his late biographers, M. Van der Willigen, has found at Haarlem the records of the birth and early burial there of an infant daughter in 1662, and of the burial of his wife there in 1669, and another record to the effect that poor Steen had some of his pictures seized and sold by an apothecary in payment of "10 florins, 5 sous, and 8 deniers," contracted for medicine during his wife’s illness. There may be some excuse for a "half-starved apothecary." The same writer tells us that Steen agreed to give, in payment of one year’s rent (1666–1667) of twenty-nine florins, three portraits, "painted as well as he was able," from which we may assume that he did not get very large sums for his work. Three portraits for twenty-nine florins would be at the rate of four dollars apiece; yet since he paid only twelve dollars a year for rent, we conclude that the purchasing power of money in those days was far greater than it is now. Many an artist of good standing nowadays would be willing to make a like exchange of three portraits for a year’s rent.

In 1672 we find Steen back again in Leyden, where, having obtained possession of some property left him by his deceased father, who it is supposed was a brewer, he applied for and obtained permission to open a tavern at the neighboring village of Langebrug. A year following this he married for the second time, and in 1679 he died, and was buried in the parish church of St. Peter at Leyden.

"The Feast of Saint Nioholas."
(For the full-color image, see below.)

The picture of "The Feast of St. Nicholas" is one of Jan Steen’s best and happiest productions. It measures 33½ inches high by 27 inches wide, and is said to represent the family of the painter. His father and mother are in the background; his wife, in the foreground extends her arms to the happy child. The festival of St. Nicholas is observed in Holland, not on the 25th of December, but on the 6th on the eve of which holy day the children hang up their shoes and stockings, and if they have been good and attentive to their studies, Santa Claus graciously fills them with dainties, while he has as certainly a rod in pickle for the idle and unruly. How beautifully Jan Steen tells the story! The children and elders are dressed in their best, and are assembled in the room by the great chimney, in which are disclosed the presents of the good saint. The principal figure that holds us is the little girl, the very embodiment of joy. Filled with delight, and overwhelmed with good things, she scarcely knows which way to turn or what to do. Next we glance at the roguish boy behind, who, with glistening eye, points at his elder brother, and takes cruel delight in his chagrin. We know now who has been the naughty boy; he stands confessed. His elder sister from behind holds forth the shoe, from which projects the significant rod, while she casts upon him a still more significant glance, which shows too well that she herself has placed it there, in retaliation for past offenses. Her look seems to say, "I told you so"; it bespeaks a certain satisfaction, mingled, however, with some concern at his tears. The old grandmother from behind, however, will compose matters. She beckons to the boy, calling him to her; and by a motion of her hand upon the bed-curtain we can see that she has something good for him behind, which Santa Claus has left her to give him on condition that he will be a good boy in future, and in particular stop teasing his elder sister with his pranks and practical jokes. Beneath the chimney, and holding the baby, who clasps in its tiny arms a great cake, stands another member of the family explaining to his younger brother, who wonderingly looks up, how Santa Claus came down. How much is expressed in so little space, and how perfect is the arrangement! The general tone of the coloring, as of all Steen’s works, might be characterized as brown, of a golden hue, but neutral; nothing could be more subtle, mellow, or refined. There is a rich note of color in the red back of the chair, while the drapery of the background is of a soft, dull reddish hue, which is repeated in a higher key in the sleeves of the girl. The wall and casements of the windows are of soft, dull brownish tints, and the dress of the crying boy is of a more decided tone of the same, while that of the old grandmother is of so uncertain a shade of brown as to be equivocal against the reddish curtains. The highest note of this color is in the loaf of bread and the cakes. The squares of the marble floor are of golden and brownish tones. The velvet sack of the woman extending her arms coaxingly toward the child is of a rich neutral shade of green, and this tone is delicately repeated in the dress of the old man. The skirt of the woman is gray, of a bluish or purplish cast, and this is repeated in a browner key in the dress of the laughing boy behind her. The dress of the happy child is of a soft shade of ocher, varied with golden and pearly tints. The pail is of a dull leaden hue, and the white draperies are warm and mellow. The colors are so neutral, tender, and harmonious in their repetitions and minglings, that they quite defy any attempt at description. The delicacy of the values, and the atmosphere of warmth and radiance which suffuses all, wrap the whole in a halo of ideality. This quality of color, however, is not peculiar alone to the works of Jan Steen, but to the Dutch school as a whole. This, combined with that marvelous sensitiveness for values,—borrowed from nature it is true, yet wrought from their inner feeling,—gives to their works that imaginative quality, that "grace and glimmer of romance," without which their realism would be but materialistic, and their probity but the record of dry facts.

Jan Steen is particularly at home with children, and has painted a considerable number of subjects illustrative of the joys of childhood; and no one surely could paint them with a kinder or more loving touch, evidence enough that he possessed a tender heart and much good nature.

On the other hand, among his masterpieces are many scenes of tavern life, of dissipation and debauchery, in which he portrays the very lowest depths of depravity. In such scenes, and others of the quaint humors and drolleries of life, he has been compared to Hogarth as a satirist of the follies and vices of his time. However this may be, there is certainly no affectation of moralizing about him. He forgets everything in the desire to imitate what is. He enters into his tavern scenes with positive delight, painting them, apparently, for their own sake, rather than from any moral end in view. But it is not necessary to make conclusions about these things.

He shows himself an ingenious caricaturist, irresistibly comic and facetious, in such scenes as "The Charlatan" of the Ryks Museum, "The Oyster Feast" and "The Dentist" of The Hague, etc.; and displays a subtle sense of humor in his many "Doctor’s Visits." At the Louvre is one of his latest works, dated 1674, "A Feast at an Inn," painted after he opened his tavern, and no doubt representing the actual interior of the place; it is valued at 30,000 francs. Pictures such as these have rightly claimed for Jan Steen high fame among the greatest Dutch painters of familiar life.

The Feast of Saint Nicholas