Propriety, order and temperance were important virtues in Dutch Calvinist society in the seventeenth century. People admired hard work and disapproved of wantonness. But they also liked a good laugh and the way that Jan Steen could make moralising entertaining.
Some of his jokes are immediately clear. We can see that this is a household where the children and servants are taking over. They are feeding their lunch to the cat, wine to a parrot and roses to the pig, while a small boy reaches into the purse of the sleeping woman. She is the mother of the household, responsible for the well-being of her family. Intoxicated with tobacco and wine, implies Steen, she has neglected her duties. As a result her children run riot, and in the garden beyond a man – perhaps her husband – seduces the young woman who is sitting in his lap.
Propriety, order and temperance were important virtues to the Dutch in the seventeenth century. This was a predominantly Calvinist society which admired hard, diligent work and disapproved of waste and wantonness. But they also liked a good laugh. The great appeal of Jan Steen to his clients was not only the brilliance of his painting but that he could make moralising entertaining.
This is one of his larger and best-known paintings, and is a typical scene of chaos and disorder underpinned with a moral message. The entertainment lies in trying to work out what is going on and the root cause of the upset, and in spotting visual puns and the disasters which are about to happen.
Some of his jokes are immediately clear to us today. We can see that this is a household where the children and servants are taking over. They are feeding their lunch to the cat, wine to a parrot and roses to the pig, while a small boy reaches into the purse of the sleeping woman. Meanwhile, in the garden, a man is apparently seducing a young woman; she sits on his lap with a large glass of wine and rubs his foot with hers. Her dress reveals more than is modest, and the half-peeled lemon which sits on the table may be an allusion to an undressing which is to come.
From a Dutch point of view, it is the sleeping woman who is key to understanding more about this topsy-turvy world. She is the mother of the household and responsible for the well-being of her family. Intoxicated with tobacco from the pipe which is falling from her hand and the wine which her daughter (or maybe it is her maid) is now feeding to the parrot, she has neglected her duties and her children are running riot. It is perhaps her husband who is caught in a clinch in the garden. The church under a stormy sky in the distance may or may not be intended to cast his transgression in a moral light, but the impending fate of the mother of the household is made clear by the contents of the basket above her head. It holds the birch with which Dutch criminals were beaten, and the crutch and wooden clapper which were used by beggars in the street.
But there is so much more here than a one-dimensional moral message. Steen also loved puns and visual jokes. The roses being fed to a pig, for example, are an echo of an old Dutch proverb, the equivalent of our ‘casting pearls before swine’. And the still life on the step is an inversion of a popular genre. It comprises some typical elements found in such paintings – the bread, cheese, fruit and jug – but tips them onto the ground.
But while we decode what’s going on in this wonderfully chaotic scene, we shouldn't neglect the sheer beauty of the painting. Steen wasn’t only a great joker, he was also a brilliant painter. He can suggest the sheen of silk or texture of linen with rapid brushwork, but he can change the pace too. Look at textures of the weave on the basket, the feathers on the parrot’s head, the dented pewter tankard or the fur trim on the neglectful mother’s jacket.
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