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Monday, May 13, 2013

Jan Steen

Jan Steen Self-portrait, 1670. He painted
himself often and without a trace of vanity.
If an artist can paint genre, he or she can paint anything. Except, for portraits, genre painting has to be considered the world's most challenging type of painted art, now, and down through the ages. I would even go so far as to postulate that this level of difficulty is why there have been so few genre artists, or at very least, so few good ones. Though not held to such strict standards as to likeness, like the portrait artist, the genre artist must be able to paint faces. He or she must also be adept at painting figures, as well as landscapes, animals, still-lifes, handle perspective, master compositional design, lighting, color, and several other more esoteric aspects of the painted image. Moreover, add to all that a sharp sense of humor coupled with the storytelling, moralizing propensities of a loquacious country preacher, and you have the makings of the most unique type of artist to ever drip paint all over the floor.

Wine Is a Mocker, 1668, Jan Steen--no doubt a scene Steen had seen many times.
Jan Steen was just such an artist. Born in 1626 in Leiden, into a Catholic family of brewers and bar owners, his youth was likely filled with endless raucous scenes of family life straight out of a 17th century sitcom...had there been TV in the 17th century. If one was to characterize Steen as an artist, you might say he was a Dutch Norman Rockwell. Of course, Steen had no George Horace Lorimer to edit his content and temper his sometimes risqué barroom or bedroom scenes. Even at a glance, it's apparent Steen enjoyed an unexpurgated freedom of expression Rockwell could only have envied, and from some distance, at that. Steen studied with the outstanding Dutch landscape artist Jan van Goyen in The Hague. In fact, he moved in with him and eventually married his art instructor's daughter, Margariet. They had eight children. That alone should have kept him supplied with hilarious genre content for a lifetime. Actually, it probably did, he often used his wife and family a models in his paintings. 

The Burgomaster of Delft and his Daughter, 1655, Jan Steen,
(Sometimes know as, Double portrait of Adolf Croeser and his daughter Catharina.)
Steen was nothing if not prolific, painting an estimated 800 works during his career, about 350 of which still survive. That number of landscapes would be impressive. For a genre painter, it approaches the realm of astounding. I've painted a few genre scenes myself. Mine take weeks. Steen apparently cranked them out in just a few days...perhaps only a few hours. Some of his figures are so characteristic we know their names, such as his 1655 Burgomaster of Delft and his Daughter (above). Art historians have difficulty categorizing these works as portraiture or genre. Steen seems almost more photographer than painter, snapping carefully composed shots of daily life and special events much as parents do today, watching their children grow up and even grow old. Except for the title, you might not realize it at first glance, but his Feast of St. Nicolas (below) is little more than just Christmas Eve at the Steens (December 5th in the Netherlands).

The Feast of St. Nicolas, 1665-68, Jan Steen. No tree, not even any greenery,
but notice the father explaining to his baby daughter how Sinterklaas gains entry.
Steen's scenes are nothing if not chaotic, so filled with action one has to quite literally study them to wring from them all the thoughtful, often hilarious, yet very human content with which they seem filled to bursting. The Dutch have even come to refer to a messy, cluttered home as "a Jan Steen household." Although they are sometimes subtle, Steen very often uses proverbs and moral values to convey a "message" through his tableaus. His Beware of Luxury (bottom) is typical of this trait. Vices are depicted to contrast with virtues, though seldom in the same painting and often only by virtue of the title. Like those of Norman Rockwell, Jan Steen's paintings were quite popular during his lifetime; and judging from what we see in them of Dutch family life, he seems to have made a decent living. With a wife and eight kids, no small accomplishment in itself.

Beware of Luxury, 1663, Jan Steen. Every detail serves to convey the message.


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