Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Spice of Life: Jan Steen in the Mauritshuis

Mauritshuis, The Hague
3 March until 13 June 2011

The Mauritshuis hosted an exhibition focusing on Jan Steen (1626-1679). The museum owns a superb collection of fourteen paintings by this important Dutch Golden Age painter. Loans from other museums and private collections were displayed alongside highlights from the Mauritshuis’s collection, such as

‘The Poultry Yard’,

‘Girl Eating Oysters’

and ‘As the Old Sing, So Twitter the Young'.

This display will give visitors the opportunity to become acquainted with Steen’s versatility, sense of humour and unrivalled talent as a storyteller. Jan Steen always packed his images full of anecdotal and humorous details, his work epitomises the ‘spice of life’.


The work of Jan Steen is at once familiar, humorous and exceptionally versatile. Not only did he paint peasants, burghers and the rich in his portraits and scenes of everyday life, he also depicted stories from the Bible and classical mythology, as well as proverbs and sayings. Moreover, he was the master of many styles, ranging from a meticulous and precise manner to a rapid and loose style of painting. It is possible that it was Steen’s wanderings that turned him into a jack-of-all-trades. He is thought to have trained under Jan van Goyen in Leiden, Adriaen van Ostade in Haarlem and Nicholaes Knupfer in Utrecht. Once his training was complete, he continued to move around, living in Leiden, The Hague, Delft, Warmond and Haarlem before eventually returning to his native Leiden. In contrast to his profligate image, Steen was a hardworking artist who produced a great number of paintings. Furthermore he held a number of important posts, whilst also being active as a brewer and innkeeper.


Jan Steen is best known for his cheerful scenes of people making merry. His boisterous images showing children running wild and undisciplined grown-ups who are invariably setting a bad example are so characteristic that they gave rise to the Dutch expression: ‘a Jan Steen household’, meaning a chaotic household.

The Dutch saying ‘to bring life to the brewery’ (the Dutch title of this exhibition), meaning to liven things up, is directly attributed to Steen. It comes from an anecdote related by the 18th-century biographer Arnold Houbraken. Steen, who also managed a brewery, had been neglecting his business and as a result, his wife urged him to keep things lively. In response, Steen purchased some ducks, which he allowed to swim around in a large hop boiler. When Steen’s wife came in to find the ducks flying around, Steen asked: “Now is it lively enough in the brewery?”

Like no other, Steen was able to poke fun at all manner of human weaknesses and vices. Spice of Life includes a number of painted proverbs. While these are all entertaining stories, there is also always a lesson to be learned.

The painting ‘As the Old Sing, So Twitter the Young’ illustrates in no uncertain terms that adults must set a good example to children, otherwise bad behaviour will follow bad.

And in ‘A Pig Belongs in the Sty’, the consequences of excessive drinking are there for all to see.

Genre Portraits

Jan Steen was always able to make something special of the few portraits he painted. This is true of

Portrait of Adolf and Catherina Croeser, known as ‘The Burgomaster of Delft’ (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam).

As well as being a painting of Steen’s neighbours – a distinguished gentleman and his daughter - this picture is also a genre scene, a cityscape and a small flower piece. Moreover, Steen has managed to combine several painting techniques in this work.

Steen’s original painting of a young girl and two servants in a poultry yard entitled Portrait of Jacoba Maria van Wassenaer, known as ‘The Poultry Yard’ is a firm favourite among visitors to the Mauritshuis. In it, Steen not only demonstrates his talents as a portraitist and genre painter, but also his skill at painting poultry.

Alluring Women

Steen painted countless scenes of young ladies involved in some way or another in affairs of the heart or more erotic pastimes. He depicted amorous young girls pining for their loved ones, scheming women deceiving their admirers and drunken ladies struggling to remember their virtue. It is the seductresses, more than the other character types, who draw attention. Steen places them in the spotlight and paints them with extra detail and care, often showing them attired in expensive and colourful clothing. Fine examples of this are ‘Girl Eating Oysters’

and ‘Woman Playing the Cittern’,

both from the Mauritshuis’s own collection,

and ‘Couple in a Bedchamber’ from the Bredius Museum in The Hague.


The richly illustrated book Jan Steen in the Mauritshuis, written by Mauritshuis curator Ariane van Suchtelen, accompanied the exhibition. This attractive publication, aimed at a broad readership, will telsl - in an accessible manner - the story of just what makes Jan Steen’s paintings at the Mauritshuis so special. The book also gives a brief overview of the popular master’s work. Available in Dutch and English.

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