A young woman, her blouse and jacket falling open rather immodestly, has drifted to sleep in her chair. In one hand is an empty wine glass, in the other a clay pipe. One man blows a stream of smoke towards her ear while a second looks on laughing. This seems like a tavern scene, but in the background are the curtains of a bed – it’s more likely we are in a brothel, where the sleeping woman works.
To modern viewers this sort of leering mockery might not make a very attractive scene. But in seventeenth-century Holland, when both alcohol and tobacco were considered dangerous intoxicants and a potential risk to a woman’s sexual virtue, it would have been a source of justified derision. Or, in this case, an example of a joke which seems a little sour today, but would have been perfectly acceptable 350 years ago.
A young woman, her blouse and jacket falling open immodestly at the front, has drifted to sleep in her chair. In one hand is an empty wine glass, in the other, looking as though it might slip out of her fingers at any moment, is a clay pipe. The man who has crept up close behind her blows a stream of smoke towards her ear, while another looks on laughing. He is holding a pipe and tankard in his hand, so we might assume that this is a tavern scene. But just behind him are the curtains of a bed – it’s more likely we are in a brothel, where the sleeping woman works.
To modern viewers this sort of leering mockery might not make a very attractive scene. But in seventeenth-century Holland, when indulging in alcohol and tobacco was considered a potential risk to a woman’s sexual virtue, it would have been a source of justified derision or, as here, amusement. Steen’s paintings are full of visual jokes – he preferred to use humour to expose dissolute behaviour, rather than high indignation. So this is probably an example of a joke which seems a little sour today but which would have been perfectly acceptable 350 years ago.
In fact, the central image – a woman who has fallen asleep after drinking and/or smoking too much – was repeated in other paintings by Steen, notably The Effects of Intemperance. Several of his other pictures show smokers, apparently befuddled by the effects of tobacco, being robbed. And grinning men offering women a pipe – apparently as an aid to seduction – appear in several other works.
Today, while we can understand why there might have been concern about the debilitating effects of alcohol, tobacco seems relatively harmless as a vice. But in Steen’s time, when it had only been in widespread use for a couple of generations, it had a reputation as a powerful intoxicant and it was associated with both idleness (and the sin of sloth) and sexual incontinence (adultery). Blowing smoke was also directly connected with lewdness, probably because the act of blowing had such associations even before tobacco was in regular use. Albrecht Dürer’s engraving The Temptation of the Idler (about 1498) shows a naked woman standing by a scholar who has fallen asleep in his study, while a devil blows into his ear with a pair of bellows.
By the 1660s, when this painting was made, tobacco’s image in Holland was slowly changing. Amsterdam and Rotterdam were the two most important continental ports importing tobacco from the Americas and there was a thriving processing industry in both cities. Meanwhile, it was being cultivated in Utrecht, and Gouda had become a centre of pipe manufacturing. As it became more economically important, there was vested interest in promoting its use as a more respectable recreational drug. That is clearly not the implication in this picture, however. Steen may want to make us laugh, but he has a serious, cautionary message too.
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