We haven’t discussed genre paintings a lot so far. Jan Steen is a name you may or may not know. He is a Dutch Golden Age Baroque genre painter whose own reputation has been eclipsed by his contemporary Johannes Vermeer, but who is still a huge figure in art history.
So how do you tell if you’re looking at a Jan Steen?
A lot of museums have a Jan Steen. Unlike Vermeer, of whose paintings only 34 survive, Steen was pretty damn prolific (his number is around 800!). First let’s start off with something a little stupid, but helpful all the same: painting dimensions. Jan Steen paintings are usually teeny to medium-sized (say, a foot-by-a-foot to 3-feet-by-three-feet). Let’s take two paintings from the Rijksmuseum as a quick point of comparison:
This is about as big a painting as a Steen will get. 33 1/2 by 27 inches.
This baby is 12 by 15 feet!
Plenty of Dutch/Flemish Baroque artists loved themselves some big canvasses. Peter Paul Rubens, Jacob Jordaens, Frans Snyders, Rembrandt, you name it. Steen was not one of them.
The second thing to look for is a tavern. Jan Steen painted all sorts of scenes, including religious scenes (he was a Catholic), but his favorite thing to paint was a raucous tavern. One could say he was painting what he knew: his father was a relatively well-to-do brewer! Later in life, Steen himself opened up a tavern to supplement his relatively meager income as a painter.
In this painting, a lecherous old man seems to be trying to have his way with a scullery maid while men gamble, a dog bites away flees, a peasant drains the last of his beer, and the tavern itself sits in general disarray, possibly because of a recent brawl. Jan Steen’s paintings usually have a lot going on, and they are almost always funny.
Let’s face it: most paintings have zero sense of humor. I mean it: zero. And Jan Steen’s are almost universally human and funny. He doesn’t paint important people striking important poses. He paints peasants and common-folk going about their daily life, especially when they’re drunk. Steen’s bawdy sensibility, like Hieronymus Bosch’s before him, is at odds with the high-minded, grand paintings of his day. Steen’s paintings are often described as satirical or even farcical, but one could argue that Steen is painting life as it really is, and that everybody else’s paintings, of noblemen in purely ceremonial military uniforms and women in dresses so fragile they couldn’t wear them outside, were the stuff of farce. It’s as if paintings like Rembrandt’s The Night Watch, commissioned by an Amsterdam militia company hoping to look important, are the olden-day equivalent of Instagram, presenting a very filtered sense of a person, while Steen’s paintings are candid photographs. There’s more of a humanity to his paintings than even, say, the famous smiles in Frans Hals’ otherwise formalistic portraits that hint at an informal personality under all the pomp and circumstance. There is a lovable shamelessness to Jan Steen’s paintings. In fact, a “Jan Steen household” in Dutch parlance is a messy one. It is no wonder that Steen is seen as the forerunner to William Hogarth, the great British painter, humorist and storyteller who was the perfect antidote to over-the-top Rococo tastes.
In terms of actual style, Jan Steen is more difficult to pin down. Sometimes he’ll use the bright colors of Flemish painters like his contemporary David Teniers the Younger, as seen in these two paintings:
Steen and Teniers the Younger are quite similar painters in many ways. Teniers liked to paint people up to no good too, including drinking the day away and relieving themselves in the middle of polite company.