Seventeenth-Century Snapshots

Jan Steen, The Dissolute Household -- Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

As you wander through an art museum, it becomes apparent that paintings from before the 19th century tend to fall into one of several broad categories. 

There are religious and mythological pictures, in which the superhuman activities of saints, angels, various deities and chubby, winged babies are shown.  There are portraits of kings and queens, as well as other aristocrats who could afford to pay an artist to flatter them.

History paintings are abundant; they commemorate important battles, coronations, voyages and the like.  Sometimes guest stars from religious paintings appear in history paintings, whispering encouragement in the king’s ear. 

Landscapes (or their close relative seascapes) show us how nature looked before the invention of billboards.  Still life paintings are basically portraits of flowers or fruit or books, with the occasional dead rabbit thrown in.

A category I enjoy — especially after having to look at dead rabbits — is what art historians call genre paintings.  These depict scenes from ordinary daily life; their subjects are common folk, not plutocrats or popes.  There were genre painters all over post-Renaissance Europe, but for some reason the Dutch were particularly good at it.

When he wasn’t painting self-portraits Rembrandt did some genre paintings, and Johannes Vermeer gave us exquisite glimpses of everyday life.  Frans Hals showed people smiling and laughing, which in the 17th century was highly unusual (in paintings, but presumably not in real life).

One of the best genre artists was Jan Steen (1626-1679), who brought a sense of humor to his work, often depicting people who were not on their best behavior.  His scenes are full of activity, almost to the point of chaos.  These are not the serene, beautifully lit moments that Vermeer presents; Steen gives us snapshots, in effect, taken of people who aren’t aware they’re being seen.

He painted children trying to teach a cat to dance, and gamblers at a tavern, and houses that looked like the cleaning lady had quit in disgust.  Some of his scenes suggest a frat party of long ago, with a lot of flirting and carousing.  To his eventual detriment, Steen sometimes painted himself into the revelry — he’s the central figure in the image above.

Because he appeared to be a drunk in his paintings — along with the fact that he had an interest in a brewery and was an innkeeper — 19th-century art critics concluded that he really was a drunk, and therefore unworthy of serious consideration as an artist.

It didn’t matter to them that his technical skills were exceptional; as Encyclopædia Britannica says, “he was a master of capturing facial expression.”  Steen’s subject matter made the art establishment of that time a little queasy, too; it was as if they blamed him that everyday life can be untidy at times.

Steen’s work has since undergone a reappraisal by experts, and is now widely admired.  To this day, however, Dutch people refer to a messy home as “a Jan Steen Household.”  I wouldn’t want to live in one, but it’s fun to look at them.

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