Jan Steen: Painter and Storyteller 12, 1997 (first at the National Gallery, Washington, D.C., April 28-August 18, 1996)
Jan Steen: Painter and Storyteller
I can remember clearly the first time I fell in love with a painting. When I was about eight or nine, my aunt, a professional painter of children’s portraits, took me to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. We saw Rembrandt’s Night Watch, of course, and my aunt pointed out that although this was the most famous painting in the world, Rembrandt’s Staalmeesters—the Syndics of the Drapers Guild—was actually a much finer work. She always said things like that. She was forever spotting fakes too: fake Titians, fake Rembrandts, fake Rubenses. Perhaps she was right about the Night Watch. Then again, overfamiliarity makes it hard to judge the quality of a great icon. (Is Van Gogh’s chair better than his sunflowers? Maybe.) We ambled through the rooms of maritime paintings by Willem van de Velde—gallant little Dutch ships blasting away at British galleons—which I liked a great deal. But then came the painting that truly grabbed my imagination, more than the Night Watch, or even Van de Velde’s naval battles: Jan Steen’s The Feast of St. Nicholas, painted around 1665.
It is hard to recapture childhood impressions exactly. But part of the attraction of Steen’s painting, I think, was that it looked so contemporary. The three centuries separating its creation from my first view meant little. For this was a scene I could recognize. Not much had changed. On the fifth of December, the day of St. Nicholas, like millions of other Dutch children we ate the same gingerbread, spiced cakes, and biscuits that Steen painted. Like the children in his picture, we would steal down in the morning to see what the saint had left in our shoes, placed near the fireplace (to give him easy access through the chimney). And the terror of finding a bundle of birch twigs instead of marzipan and ginger nuts was as palpable to us as it was to the eldest son in Steen’s painting. Through the year we had been warned that bad behavior would be punished by Black Peter, St. Nicholas’s Moorish servant. This element of caution only sharpened the enjoyment of the feast. The same might apply to much of Jan Steen’s art.
Steen was a superb painter of children. He painted them as they are, with a sympathetic yet unsentimental eye. There are no false tears in his pictures, no cute little tugs at adult heartstrings which a child can see through instantly. Steen’s children are lifelike in their joy and nastiness. I suppose it was the latter that appealed to me more: the little brother, clutching his own present, jeering at the older boy who got the birch; the innocent smugness of the spoiled little daughter, carrying a pail filled with sugary gifts. These children are not ornaments, or putti, or angels, but greedy members of the extended family, living examples of the vices and virtues of acquisition. I was not aware, when I …