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.”

Well, it is good to be reassured, and true enough, there are many references to and plays on moral conventions in Steen’s art, but equally remarkable is the complete absence of moralism in some of his bawdiest paintings. If the suggestion is that moralism somehow redeems or deepens the depiction of sensual pleasure, that a censorious element elevates eroticism to high art, this idea is belied by some of the paintings on display. One of the highlights of the Steen show is a gem of a painting entitled Girl Offering Oysters (1658-1660). A beautiful young girl looks us straight in the eye as she sprinkles salt on an open oyster. Behind her is a bed. In the next room a man and a woman are preparing more oysters. Oysters, in Steen’s as well as other seventeenth-century paintings, are erotic symbols. The girl’s bedroom eyes, the bed, the other couple, the oysters: this is a compressed image of sexual seduction. There is no hint of a moral lesson, however. And the picture is a masterpiece.

Even more up front is Couple in a Bedroom (1668-1670). A woman in her underwear—probably a prostitute—is climbing onto a bed already occupied by her lover, who tugs impatiently at her underskirt. Both are ruddy with anticipation. Under the bed, a pipe rests on the edge of a chamber pot (pisspots, open beer mugs, bungholes, stockings, boxes, oysters, and mussels were well-worn metaphors for female genitals; the pipe needs no explanation). Scarlet stockings are draped across the chair next to the bed. True, neither man nor woman looks especially edifying, but then people about to have sex generally don’t. Again there is no indication that what they are doing is bad. Indeed, the toasty red colors, the intimate glances, the velvety materials and rich silks, painted with extraordinary finesse, bathe the eroticism in a glow of gezelligheid.

Other paintings by Steen do indeed contain moral sayings, homilies, vanitas symbols, and other warnings of the consequences of excess. Skulls, broken eggshells, and soap bubbles show the fleetingness of worldly pleasures. Birches, lepers’ clappers, and dogs cleaning out empty cooking pots remind us of the price to pay for not sticking to the straight and narrow. What is interesting about Steen, however, is the open delight people take in their debauchery. The chaotic households of Jan Steen, with pretzels and playing cards and broken pipes and other debris strewn all over the wooden floors, and children smoking and pilfering, and fathers seducing maids, and mothers getting drunk, all this may well have been intended to show a dire counterexample to the well-ordered, thrifty, humanist world of the bourgeois Republic, but these people are clearly having a wonderful time.

Steen’s moralism, then, is too ambiguous to use as proof of his high-mindedness. Steen was doubtless a serious artist. But it was his playfulness, his moral ambiguity, more than moralism, that made him so, and gave his art its enduring fascination. In 1663 he painted one of his best pictures of a whore, now in the safe care of the British Queen. Technically A Woman at Her Toilet is as fine as Girl Offering Oysters. As with the oyster girl, we see a seductive young woman looking straight at us. She is sitting on a luxurious bed, bending over slightly to peel off her pale blue stocking. Her pink jacket, painted with a feeling for fabrics that few artists, not even Vermeer, could rival, is half open, revealing one creamy breast about to pop out. Her yellow dress is hitched up, showing the stocking marks just under her knees. To enter her room and lock the door, we would have to cross a rather pompous arched doorway, with marble Corinthian columns on either side.

As Wheelock explains in his essay, the doorway is decorated with carved symbols of decent family values: a sunflower shows marital constancy, and grapevines depict fertility and domestic virtue. A skull and a broken lute, lying on the threshold, underline the vanity and transience of the sensual pleasures in store. The moralizing character of these symbols is, as Wheelock says, explicit, but so is the attraction of illicit sex. There is certainly no suggestion that having sex with this woman would be sinful in a religious sense, or disgusting in any way. The moralism concerns the value of domestic order and spiritual love. The doorway is classical, the room inviting, commercial, gezellig. I think Steen’s picture makes it clear that the classical virtues are lofty but human flesh is weak—and oh-so-desirable.

Steen’s whoring men and loose women are not sinners, but careless human beings, in more danger of losing their money than their souls. Steen liked to picture himself as the lecherous, drunken fool, about to be divested of his money and dignity by women who sometimes bore the features of his wives. His second wife, Maria Herculens, apparently was not too pleased about this. She “wished to be portrayed as a proper woman,” not “a horny tart.”6 Steen, on the other hand, always looks perfectly happy, groping the serving maid in The Interior of an Inn (1664-1668), or having his purse emptied by a charming prostitute in The Merry Threesome (1670- 1672). Steen himself was the prime manager of his own legend. The fact that he was a brewer and innkeeper by profession only added to his image as a boozy roustabout. Those who prefer to see Steen as an upstanding family man believe this was all an elaborate charade to teach Dutch burghers how not to live their lives. But to take that view is to underestimate his originality.

It was not at all unusual for seventeenth-century Dutch artists to put themselves, Hitchcock-like, in their pictures, or to act the roles of bad boys. Several instances are reproduced in the catalog: Rembrandt painted himself as one of Christ’s tormentors in The Raising of the Cross. Adriaen Brouwer is seen blowing smoke at us in his painting, The Smokers, surrounded by fellow artists trying their best to look disreputable. The idea of the artist as a lowlife figure thumbing his nose at straight society was being deliberately promoted here. What was unusual about Steen was the way he blurred the borders between his private life and his art. We don’t quite know how much was just posturing. His first biographer, Arnold Houbraken (1660-1719), probably exaggerated when he wrote that Steen’s “paintings are as his way of life and his way of life as his paintings.” But according to H. Perry Chapman, Houbraken’s accounts of Steen’s chaotic domestic arrangements “have some basis in fact.”

How much does it really matter? Living a life of irreproachable bourgeois probity does not guarantee artistic quality, and neither does a life of drunken abandon. Steen’s life is interesting as a theatrical performance, where it is transformed into art. It is the pictures we must judge, not the raw materials of the man’s life. He was in a way like some twentieth-century artists, especially photographers. He anticipated Robert Mapplethorpe, to the point of giving his most erotic scenes the highest polish. Like the American, some of whose enthusiasms he almost certainly did not share, he was an aesthete of dissipation.

The curators of the Steen show are right to point out that Steen was much more sophisticated than many people might think. He was indeed “erudite, witty, enterprising and surprisingly well-informed about artistic traditions.” Steen knew his art history, was an admirer of Brueghel and Lucas van Leyden, and borrowed motifs and styles from the Italian Renaissance. But he did so in the same theatrical, irreverent way he treated moral conventions. Steen liked to stir things up. Seductive cocottes, in his paintings, and perhaps in real life too, adopted the airs of elegant ladies. The style of high art (Raphael’s School of Athens) was quoted in a low genre painting (A School for Boys and Girls, circa 1670). He mixed portraiture with genre scenes, biblical allegories with brothel pictures, moralism with lasciviousness.

To take the moral messages in his paintings at face value and call him a straightforward moralist is to miss the point. It would be equally perverse to ignore the moral content altogether, and regard it simply as a joke. It was the tension between convention and transgression, art and real life, high and low, that made Steen’s art surprisingly close in spirit to our time. To be sure, it’s dangerous to project our own time into works produced three hundred years ago. Steen was, after all, a seventeenth-century Dutchman. In his catalog essay, Eddy de Jongh warns that much of Steen’s humor and references are lost on us, and that we should be careful not to be seduced by his easy charm into assuming that we can always understand his intentions. Steen was a slippery figure, playing hide-and-seek all the time, undermining his own moral messages with his subversive wit. De Jongh assumes that the artist did “not speak his true mind in certain respects, and never will.” Detailed knowledge of seventeenth-century Dutch culture, religion, and politics obviously helps us to decode at least some of what he was up to.

But it might also be fruitful, although no doubt risky, to compare Steen to artists working in a completely different cultural tradition, one he might have found baffling but congenial, too. I am thinking of Japanese artists of the ukiyo, or “floating world.” The differences between semi-feudal seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Japan and the Dutch Republic are naturally enormous. But there are some striking similarities. H. Perry Chapman explains in her essay that “mercantile values” in Holland

fostered the competitive cultural traits of wit, exchange, and challenge. To succeed in a highly competitive art market, Dutch painters adopted innovative strategies not only for producing and selling their works, but also for differentiating themselves creatively. To an urban audience that prized clever exchange, Steen’s comic role-playing provided a way for him to draw attention to himself.

The same could be said about the market in Japanese cities, where new rich merchants developed an insatiable appetite for subversive wit, erotic sensation, and theatrical performance, provided by artists and actors with more or less scandalous reputations.

One aspect of this new urban art was the deliberate confusion of periods and genres. I have in front of me one of the earliest examples of floating-world art, painted in the 1660s by a man known to us only as the Kambun Master. It shows a young man, dressed as a Heian Period courtier, depicted in the traditional style of the Tosa school. He is in fact Ariwara no Narihira, the author and hero of the ninth-century epic, the Tales of Ise. He is flirting under the moonlight with a courtesan dressed in the height of seventeenth-century fashion. The deliberate anachronism, mixing an ancient literary classic with the world of Edo-period brothels, would have been immediately obvious to the Japanese public. Not to Steen, of course, had he been shown this picture. But with some tutelage in Japanese cultural references, he would surely have got the point.

Dutch culture was influenced by humanism and Christianity, particularly Calvinism. The Japanese tradition was a mixture of Shinto, Confucianism, and Buddhism. But the morality that pervaded popular arts and entertainments in both countries was remarkably similar. It had to do with money, the fear of losing it, or of being ruined by the temptations it provided. The pursuit of wealth made merchants rich and powerful in both societies. Simon Schama, among others, has shown how Calvinist preachers, as well as humanist philosophers, warned against the moral corruption of “Mother Money.” Humanists preached the ideal of moderation, and Calvinists instilled fear of dangerous women tempting men to stray.

Similar forces were at work in Japan, where merchants, however rich and powerful, were officially despised for their allegedly gross, selfish, money-grubbing ways. And they, too, were always warned against greed and excess, albeit in Confucian terms. There were strict, though not always effectively enforced, sumptuary laws against wearing luxurious clothes. There were regular crackdowns on theaters, publishers, and unlicensed brothels for encouraging licentiousness. And as good Buddhists, all Japanese knew about the evanescence of worldly pleasure. Indeed, the expression “floating world” began as a Buddhist term for earthly transience and ended up as a description of the erotic culture of teahouses and the theater.

Official puritanism, perhaps more in Japan than Holland, was often a way for authorities (the church in Holland, the samurai government in Japan) to impose social control. But domestic stability, diligence, thrift, social harmony, and so on were important virtues for Dutch burghers and Japanese townsmen, too. They were good for business. In a painting called Easy Come, Easy Go (1661), Steen depicted himself as a drunken merchant being served oysters and wine by women of easy virtue. Above the mantelpiece hangs the warning: a picture of Fortune, precariously balanced on an orb, symbol of instability. Fortunes are made and easily lost in great trading cities. Better watch out. Don’t be too greedy. Don’t get wasted.

Yet the burghers and townsmen wanted to have fun too. The safest release from their ordered world was to enjoy its opposite vicariously, in entertainment, or within the limits of a well-organized brothel culture. That sexual entertainment was as well organized in Amsterdam as in Edo and Osaka (and for the same reason) is clear from contemporary accounts. Schama quotes an eighteenth-century book, by Bernard de Mandeville, entitled A Modest Defence of Publick Stews, to the effect that the preservation of moral order depended on the tolerance of prostitution. Mandeville observed: “If courtesans and strumpets were to be prosecuted with as much rigor as some silly people would have it, what locks and bars would be sufficient to preserve the honor of our wives and daughters?… Some men would grow outrageous, and ravishing would become a common crime.”7 Precisely these arguments are still used in Holland to regulate the flourishing trade in sex and drugs.

In seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century Japan the system of licensed brothels produced a culture of extraordinary refinement. Many courtesans and prostitutes were accomplished artists. They adopted the styles of famous aristocratic ladies, whose roles were performed on the Kabuki stage by actors, who were depicted in prints, often as the real or imagined lovers of the courtesans. The lines between life and theater were utterly vague. This was a topsy-turvy world where “country girls masqueraded as sophisticated beauties and lowly merchants assumed the airs of men of affairs.”8 In Amsterdam famous courtesans were celebrated in popular booklets and fashion plates. In Japan, their performances were reviewed by learned rakes as though they were actresses. Sensational love affairs, usually ending badly, were acted out in Kabuki plays and shown in prints, accompanied by conventional warnings about the unfortunate consequences of overstepping society’s bounds. High and low culture were mixed up freely to the delight of the merchant public. The ever-present hint of moral peril was at once exciting and reassuring. The public could go home feeling virtuous, as well as royally entertained—not so different, in fact, from a modern audience after seeing a gangster movie.

I suspect that the brothels of seventeenth-century Holland, with their gambling rooms, country dancing, and hurdy-gurdies, would have struck discerning Japanese pleasure-seekers as unbelievably coarse. The Dutch theater never produced a tradition as lasting as Kabuki. But painting was a different matter. There the Dutch reached heights that are still a marvel. Their talent, it is often thought, was for sober realism, in keeping with their earnest religious traditions. And yet some of them painted a far more fantastic picture of Dutch life, in the guise of realism. Steen’s output was prodigious and of uneven quality. His range was wide, and at his best he could rival most specialists in any genre. But as an artist of the Dutch floating world, Jan Steen was the master of them all.

This Issue

January 9, 1997