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Artist of the Floating World

Jan Steen: Painter and Storyteller 12, 1997 (first at the National Gallery, Washington, D.C., April 28-August 18, 1996)

Exhibition at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, September 21, 1996-January

Jan Steen: Painter and Storyteller

catalog of the exhibition, by H. Perry Chapman, by Wouter Th. Kloek, by Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.
National Gallery of Art/Rijksmuseum/Yale University Press, 272 pp., $50.00

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.1 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 first saw the painting, that children in seventeenth-century Dutch art could be seen as an allegory of the infancy of the Dutch Republic—but then neither at that point was Simon Schama, who developed this theory in his Embarrassment of Riches.2 What I could recognize was the relationship between children and adults: the mother lavishing all her attention on the little girl; the grandmother taking pity on the mischievous grandson and finding a surprise for him after all; and the grandfather, dressed in an old-fashioned white collar, content to just sit and watch and smile.

There is a word for all this convivial bonding, of which the Dutch are very proud: gezelligheid. It is a source of pride that there is no exact equivalent in English, though there is in German, which is generally ignored. It suggests sitting indoors in good company on long wintry nights. It conjures up images of cozy rooms, warm reddish-brown colors, noisy laughter, and plenty of food and drink. Thick reddish Oriental carpets spread on tables are gezellig. Smoke-filled brown Amsterdam cafes are gezellig. Dutch tourists huddling in each other’s caravans to eat peanut butter sandwiches in France find that gezellig. Dancing in the streets when the national soccer team has beat the Germans is gezellig. Dutch whores knitting away in the red glow of their cozy little canal houses are gezellig. Red-robed St. Nicholas is particularly gezellig. In fact, Holland can be so damned gezellig in its celebration of its own coziness, you want to shake the place up and rub its nose in some dirt. Jan Steen was the consummate painter of gezelligheid. This is why he is not only respected but loved in Holland. He was a master in scarlet, crimson, and terra cotta. What saves his art from coziness, however, is an acid eye for human psychology, and a vulgar streak that contains a healthy dose of dirt.

One of the revelations of the current exhibition in Amsterdam, which opened at the National Gallery in Washington last summer, is Steen’s versatility. He didn’t just do family feasts, tavern parties, and brothel scenes, but a number of religious paintings too. One of the most interesting is The Wedding Feast at Cana (1670-1672). It is the occasion of Christ’s first miracle, when he turned water into wine. Christ in the painting is a modest, soberly dressed figure, quietly blessing the pitchers of water, while Mary and three enraptured disciples gaze up at him. There is no reason to doubt Steen’s religious feeling. But there is no mistaking the gezelligheid either, or the groping, tugging, belching intimations of grosser physical pleasures. Most of the guests, including the bride and groom, are oblivious to the holy man in their midst. And it is the drunken, partying guests, dressed in fine silk clothes, enjoying their riches without a trace of embarrassment, who are highlighted in the painting. A grinning, dissolute figure, possibly the artist himself, salutes Christ with his wineglass. Gezelligheid, in fact, overshadows the religious miracle. The flesh of man is too weak for him to recognize the presence of God.

The question, posed ever since the artist’s own lifetime, is whether Steen’s joie de vivre, all that drinking, wenching, laughing, rollicking gezelligheid, is an artistic strength or a weakness. Painters of pleasure are often thought to be a bit lightweight, superficial, amusing, no doubt, but not quite the real thing. This is especially true when the pleasure is overtly erotic, as in some of Steen’s work. His paintings of drunken sluts and whores are a world away from Vermeer’s quiet domesticity. Hilton Kramer, who reviewed the Jan Steen show at the National Gallery in Washington, is typical of the highminded school. Compared to Rembrandt’s “gravity” and Vermeer’s introspection, Steen’s charm he finds wearisome. For, he writes, there “is nothing of the mystic in Steen, and very little of what can be called piety.” Steen is “immensely entertaining, but he is rarely, if ever, deep.”3

But there is another view, which Heinrich Heine put quite well: “Jan Steen understood that our life is just a colorful kiss of God, and knew that the Holy Ghost reveals itself most gloriously in light and laughter.” Heine’s religious feelings are difficult to place. He was a Jew who converted to Protestantism to get a civil service job. At the end of his life, wracked by disease, he bickered with a personal God. He was in any case not a Calvinist. Calvinists don’t see life as a colorful kiss. God did not put us on earth to have fun. We tend to associate Dutch culture with the stern, God-fearing sobriety of Calvinism. Yet some of the things Dutch people cherish most about their culture are not in fact Calvinist. The eve of St. Nicholas, as Dutch as Thanksgiving is American, was a Catholic feast, which Protestants in Steen’s time continued to celebrate in secular form against the wishes of Calvinist ministers. Gezelligheid and a ribald sense of humor are hardly typically Calvinist traits. Certainly the chaotic domestic scenes, still known in Dutch generically as “households of Jan Steen,” are not. Steen’s world, still regarded as the epitome of Dutchness, is the opposite of Calvinist restraint. Steen himself was, in fact, a Catholic.

Of course Catholic painters, especially in the seventeenth-century Netherlands, could be as moralistic, introspective, or “deep” as Protestants. Vermeer was a Catholic, albeit a convert through marriage. What has always confused people about Steen is his deliberate and very modern attempt to mix genres. He was a jester even in his religious mode. His sermons were studded with jokes. Steen turned religious scenes into riotous genre paintings, or theatrical tableaux. Since riotous genre paintings, on the whole, are not as highly regarded as religious or “transcendental” art, and melancholy stillness is considered superior to comedy, Steen’s reputation has suffered. His capacity to give pleasure was never doubted, especially in Holland and England. And nineteenth-century romantics celebrated his bohemianism, as much as eighteenth-century classicists deplored it. But true greatness was thought to lie elsewhere.

When The Wedding Feast at Cana was on sale in London in 1814, the catalog entry read: “This subject is intended by the painter to designate dignified history, with no less a personage for the main agent than the Saviour. Nothing can be more ludicrous than such a proof of mistaken powers; but considering it as a carousal in Flanders, it abounds in the truth and nature of familiar life….”4 This attitude persisted well into the twentieth century. The same painting was shown in 1926, at a major Jan Steen exhibition in Leyden, to mark the tricentennial of his birth. To mark the event, the art historian Wilhelm Martin wrote that the boisterous humor, more suited to a Dutch bourgeois feast than to a religious scene, might well embarrass those not used to Jan Steen’s art.

Yet this same Professor Martin was keen to establish Steen’s stature as a great artist. So he tried to rescue the artist from his own reputation. He wanted to prove Steen’s high moral seriousness. It was quite wrong, he wrote, to think of Steen as a dissolute man, for now “we know that he was a diligent worker, a good family man, and an honest fellow.”5 This defensiveness might strike us as curious—as though a good family man were more likely to be a great artist than a drunken philanderer. Then again, we live in a revivalist age of family values. And, to be sure, the same defensive tone is evident in the current exhibition. Now The Wedding Feast at Cana is held up (by Arthur K. Wheelock) as an example of Steen’s “lofty” intentions. It provides “a visual defense for the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation.” The first thing you see as you walk into the show is the following text displayed on the wall: “At first sight [Steen’s paintings] may seem frivolous and unexceptional, simply intended to amuse. Yet there is often a moral concealed in a text or a subtle reference.”

  1. 1

    In these politically correct times, Black Peter has become a somewhat controversial figure. There have been demands for his demise. Speaking for myself, I don’t think my early exposure to Black Peter caused any lasting damage to my relations with black people.

  2. 2

    Simon Schama, The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in The Golden Age (Knopf, 1987), p. 499.

  3. 3

    Hilton Kramer, The New York Observer, June 3, 1996, p. 1.

  4. 4

    Quoted by Gary D. Schwartz in NRC/Handelsblad (Rotterdam), August 23, 1996.

  5. 5

    Wilhelm Martin, Jan Steen en zijn kunst (Leyden: Sijthoff, 1926), p. 16.

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