Steen’s paintings of everyday life in seventeenth-century Holland are nearly always humorous in tone. This tiny picture, which is smaller than a sheet of A4 paper and was probably made when Steen was in his mid-twenties, is no different.
An old woman screws up her eyes as she tries to read a text with a pair of glasses offered to her by a pedlar. The man in blue is clearly amused by her struggles and, catching our eye, invites us to laugh with him. The three figures on the right also form a vignette illustrating the three ages of man: the curiosity of the young girl, the confidence of the man at the peak of life and the declining powers of the old woman.
This painting seems originally have been part of a pair which illustrated interactions between travellers and villagers. At the end of the eighteenth century it was sold with a companion piece (since lost) which showed a fortune teller.
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