A young lad dips his finger into something delicious in the background of this raucous picture – probably something forbidden, since he hides what he’s doing. The actions and expressions of the men also imply the tasting of forbidden fruits denied them by the young woman. She shoves away the hand of the laughing man who lifts her skirt, while the figure in the red cap tamps tobacco into his pipe with a suggestive finger. Another man sniffs appreciatively at an open wine jug while gazing at the woman.
Steen has sprinkled this comic moral tale with symbols: the handle of the frying pan, a phallic symbol, pointing towards the three men; the mussels, a well-known aphrodisiac; the broken eggs, usually a sign of loss of virtue but in this case possibly representing the men’s ambitions towards the woman. But Steen mocks himself too: he’s portrayed himself here as the laughing man.
‘As the old sing, so pipe the young.’ Jan Steen often used this motto, which means that children learn by example, as a theme for his paintings. And in the background of this raucous picture of the interior of an inn, a young lad, his back to us, dips his finger into something delicious – probably something forbidden since he hides what he’s doing.
The actions and expressions of the men also imply the tasting of forbidden fruits denied them by the young woman in the brown dress. Her hand protects her breasts and her bodice is tightly buttoned. She shoves away the invasive and uninvited hand of the laughing man beside her, who lifts her skirt while the figure in the red cap tamps tobacco into his pipe with a suggestive finger. Behind him another man sniffs appreciatively at an open wine jug while gazing at the woman.
Steen has sprinkled this comic moral tale with erotic symbols: the handle of the frying pan, a phallic symbol, pointing suggestively towards the men; open mussels, a well-known aphrodisiac; the open bung of the barrel and the stick waiting to enter it. The broken eggshells were said to speak of lost virtue, although in this case they might stand for the thwarted desires of the men rather than the moral status of the woman. Her collar is clean and sparkling white, her hair neat – this is the respectable landlady of the inn, not one of Steen’s smiling, happily rumpled and complicit young women joining in the rowdy joke. For joke it is, however it might appear today.
Steen found a market for bawdy, ’slice of life‘ pictures and painted them possibly in their dozens, but always with humour, wit and parody – especially self-parody. As in many of his paintings, Steen shows himself – the laughing man – red-faced, drunk and delighted at his own idea of a joke, but displaying himself as an object of mockery. This isn’t a self portrait in the true meaning of the word, however. His features and perhaps something of his personality are there, but he’s assuming a character, as are all the other figures in the picture. Steen owned and ran a pub as well as being an artist and it’s likely that he brought in friends to model for him. It’s as if he’s painting a scene from a comic play or a book. Whether he acted himself or not we don't know, but we do know that he liked the theatre and literature.
Painted towards the end of Steen’s life, the background is less distinct and full of detail than his earlier work, but it still has the robust life, energy and humour the artist is famous for.
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