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STEEN, Jan/ ARTISTS 1650-1899/ ART MAIN 

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(b. 1626, Leiden, d. 1679, Leiden)

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Dutch painter. He is best known for his humorous genre scenes, warm hearted and animated works in which he treats life as a vast comedy of manners. In Holland he ranks next to Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Hals in popularity and a 'Jan Steen household' has become an epithet for an untidy house. But Steen, one of the most prolific Dutch artists, has many other faces. He painted portraits, historical, mythological, and religious subjects (he was a Catholic), and the animals, birds, and still-lifes in his pictures rival those by any specialist contemporaries. As a painter of children he was unsurpassed.

Steen was born in Leiden and is said to have studied with Adriaen van Ostade in Haarlem and Jan van Goyen (who became his father-in-law) in The Hague. He worked in various towns - Leiden, The Hague, Delft, Warmond, and Haarlem - and in 1672 he opened a tavern in Leiden. His father had been a brewer, and in the popular imagination Steen was a drunken profligate, but there is nothing in the known facts to justify this reputation. Many of his pictures represent taverns and festive gatherings, but they often feature moralizing allusions, and he also painted scenes of impeccable genteelness. Apart from his versatility, richness of characterization, and inventiveness in composition, Steen is remarkable also for his skill as a colourist, his handling of salmon-red, rose, pale yellow, and blue-green being highly distinctive.

He had no recorded pupils, but his work was widely imitated.

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A Merry Party

c. 1660
Oil on canvas, 150 x 148 cm
Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest

 

 

 

Jan Steen was one of the most popular of the Dutch masters of the seventeenth century. His gay and animated genre-scenes were highly appreciated, both by his contemporaries and by collectors in the eigtheenth and nineteenth centuries. He was a pupil of Nicolaus Knüpfer in Utrecht and of his father-in-law, Jan van Goyen, and lived and worked for varying periods of time in nearly every large town in Holland.

His range of subjects was extremely wide; he painted both villages and towns, peasants and well-to-do citizens; his vividly coloured, broadly constructed compositions depict taverns, sick-rooms, fairs, workshops and weddings, mythological and historical scenes in the spirit of the Dutch oratorical groups of his time, as well as character figures and a few portraits.

Steen often depicted his family and himself, as indeed he has done in this picture, where he, his wife and his children are seen carousing. The work gets its alternative title of "The Cat Family" from the basket of new-born kittens held by the girl at the back of the circle.

This picture splendidly summarizes the art of Steen - and Dutch genre as a whole. The centre of the family circle is the cat family in the basket on the table. Everybody is happy, gay and completely relaxed. The artist indicates our senses as the main source of pleasure: hearing makes us enjoy music; the sense of touch enables us to enjoy stroking the cats; the sense of taste and smell are satisfied by drinking; and our sight conveys the delight of reading an amusing story. The latter joy is represented by the figure of the artist himself, for the reader is a self portrait. The pleasing figure of a woman seen with her back to the onlooker could be the pleasure-giving muse of genre painting-if genre painting ever had such a muse. And if there were no such muse, then she must be considered to be Steen's most captivating figure of a woman, whose face, however, was apparently not worthy of the painter's brush.