Going to the Jan Steen exhibition at the National Gallery is a bit surreal, but in a totally rewarding way. It’s like partying, Sunday school and visiting a museum all at the same time.
Add to that that these paintings, created hundreds of years ago, are as up-to-date as the Surgeon General’s warning yesterday, and it’s no wonder the mind is reeling. But what a stimulating reel it is.
Steen, one of the greatest Dutch genre painters of the 17th century, is here rewarded with the first major exhibition of his work in the United States – 48 paintings spanning his entire career.
Of all of them, none provides a better example of Steen’s art – at once funny and restrained, informal in appearance but beautifully done – than “As the Old Sing, So Pipe the Young” (c. 1663-1665). The greatest of his genre paintings, executed when he was at the height of his powers, it sums up Steen at his best.
For starters, the image announces the multiplicity of Steen’s artistic intentions with what you immediately notice: there’s a lot going on here.
In an image just over 4 feet by 5 feet (large by Steen’s standards but not by ours), the artist has set up 10 people, a dog, a parrot, a still life on a table, and miscellaneous other objects, all packed into a shallow, stage-like space. And on this stage is played a morality play.
Grouped around a central table in this domestic scene are three generations of a family with a high era. The grandfather watches rather amiably, while the grandmother points out on a piece of paper the proverb which gives its title to the painting: “As it is sung, so it is fluted.”
The Next Generation members are really having fun. The father (Steen introduces his own image here, as he often does elsewhere), laughing loudly as if he had had a few, teaches one of his children to smoke (representations of the Steen children). The mother (Steen’s wife) lolls drunk in her chair, while a servant pours her another glass of wine. Another woman (probably a sister) is holding a baby, who will also become this spirited family.
It’s part of the party.
The Sunday school part, the moral lesson, couldn’t be clearer. Even without the title, it’s obvious that today’s parents are following the irresponsible example of grandparents and passing it on to their children.
To emphasize the interest of the title, Steen has one of his children playing the bagpipes and the other smoking a pipe (“So Pipe the Young”).
And it adds a parrot, “a symbol of learning and imitation,” as the show’s catalog entry points out. In its rich red color and placement at the top left of the image, the parrot serves as well as anything else to lead to reflection on Steen’s ability as a painter.
The image is a tour de force of colors, textures and realistic depiction of everything from the facial expressions to the coat of the dog in the foreground to the half-peeled lemon on the table.
The lemon is the centerpiece of a compositional scheme that unifies the image in two overlapping ways. There is an X made up of two diagonals, one going from the grandmother’s arm to the parrot, the other from the mother’s arm to the child’s hat (red like the parrot). The lemon, with its spiral skin in the exact center of the image, begins the composition’s spiral outward in successive concentric circles until it ends with the parrot on its perch and the jug on the floor.
Rely on reality
“As the Old Sing” and the other 47 paintings here, along with the excellent catalog, examine both Steen’s life and his art.
A product of the extraordinary flowering of Dutch art in the 17th century, Steen (1626-1679) was born a brewer and became both brewer and tavern owner. But he also went to Latin school and briefly attended Leiden University. His artistic training is thought to derive at least in part from the painters Adriaen van Ostade and Jan van Goyen. He married the latter’s daughter and continued his commercial and artistic career in The Hague, Delft, Haarlem and Leiden.
The exhibition covers his career from the populated landscapes and somewhat awkward interior scenes of the early 1650s to the late “The Garden Party” (1677), imbued with a softness of light and an air of nostalgia.
Although his images possess a natural spontaneity, he was a serious and learned artist, knowledgeable in both contemporary and earlier art. Among many examples, he reworked elements of Raphael’s famous Vatican fresco, “The School of Athens”, in paintings as serious as “The Wedding at Cana” (c. 1670-1672) and as boisterous as ” A school for boys and girls” (circa 1670).
In terms of subject, his “history” paintings (mostly religious), without renouncing seriousness, possess a certain warmth and immediacy. A woman in the foreground of “The Wedding at Cana” brings home some of her dinner in her napkin – a doggy bag from the 1670s.
His genre scenes, while often comedic, possess a moral purpose despite the fact that we often see Steen as one of the less admirable characters. He can appear as a clown, a lecher or a fool. In his “Self-portrait as a lutenist” (circa 1663-1665), he presents himself as a comic actor.
His appearance in these photos has sparked much speculation. By portraying himself as “bad example” characters, does he actually subvert the moral purpose of these works, slyly commenting that the free and easy, irresponsible life is the most desirable? Or does he simply play roles, like the comic actor in the self-portrait?
Maybe the artist is winking
Given the general tone of Steen’s work, and in particular moralizing paintings such as “In Luxury Beware” (1663) or “Wine Is a Mocker” (c. 1668-1670), it is impossible to assume that Steen would not does not want us to take his serious messages seriously. But maybe there is a double answer here.
Maybe on some level he’s winking at us, mocking society’s most puritanical element – much like a mischievous guy teases the sober couple at the party in “Twelfth Night.” (1662).
But more importantly, Steen, although a highly respected artist, had less than perfect qualities. “Jan Steen was indeed a carefree man who drank and spent more money than he earned,” writes Marten Jan Bok in the catalog essay “The Artist’s Life.”
The reputation of the artist must have been known in the communities where he painted. Presenting himself as an upright citizen would have raised the question of hypocrisy and cast a cloud of doubt on the sincerity of his images. In fact, he puts himself in the very human position of saying, in effect, “Do as I say, not as I do.”
And the human – as in human nature – is the essence of Steen. Despite their age, these works speak to us as directly as any art of our time – in fact more directly than most contemporary art – because they speak to us about ourselves.
With 48 paintings in five galleries, the exhibition is just the right size – small enough that you can linger over these images individually. There’s so much going on in them that you should linger.
The gallery gave the exhibition a simple yet elegant installation and complemented it, appropriately, with a single-gallery exhibition titled “Scenes from Everyday Life.” It consists of a group of 35 genre prints, by northern European artists, with whom Steen’s work has much in common.
Jan Steen in Washington
Where: The National Gallery of Art, Fourth Street at Constitution Avenue, Northwest, Washington
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday until August 18
Call: (202) 737-4215
Publication Date: 04/28/96