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Jan Steen, An Interior with a Man offering an Oyster to a Woman

Key facts
Full title An Interior with a Man offering an Oyster to a Woman
Artist Jan Steen
Artist dates 1626 - 1679
Date made probably 1660-5
Medium and support Oil on oak
Dimensions 38.1 × 31.5 cm
Inscription summary Signed
Acquisition credit Salting Bequest, 1910
Inventory number NG2559
Location Not on display
Collection Main Collection
Previous owners
An Interior with a Man offering an Oyster to a Woman
Jan Steen

Centre stage, against a shadowy, mostly black-and-white background, the bright red jacket inevitably draws our eye to the young woman. She leans back – rather immodestly, a glass of wine held in her lap, knees apart, one foot up on a box – and smiles directly up at the man offering her an oyster.

This not a polite gesture of thanks for the offer of a canapé to go with her wine. In seventeenth-century Holland, the connotations would have been understood immediately. Oysters were regarded as both an aphrodisiac and a reference to female sexuality: the man’s offer is an erotic advance.

Other clues confirm the interpretation. The cat is a traditional symbol of lust, there is a curtained bed in the background and the table is supported by carvings of naked women, draped with garlands. The setting is a brothel – the woman works there.

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