Many great paintings came out of the Dutch golden age, but Jan Steen’s have some very special characteristics. There is a sense of humor evident in the people he depicts. They connect in a very human way to the viewer. Steen uses rich color and facial expression to convey the passions and chaos of everyday life.
Jan Steen was born in 1626. He might well have had a childhood filled with rich color and interesting characters. After all, his family, who were Catholic, ran a bar. They had plenty of money to provide him with opportunities and they were brewers who, for two generations, owned the local pub, The Red Halbert, located in Leiden in the southern part of Holland. He attended the Latin School, as did the more-famous Rembrandt. He was taught how to paint by Nicolaes Knupfer, who was known for his historical paintings.
Steen became an assistant to a famous landscape painter, Jan van Goyen, and moved into van Goyen’s house in The Hague. A year later, he married van Goyen’s daughter, Margriet. He worked with his father-in-law for four more years but during a recession, when the art market was weak for awhile, he took a shot at the family trade and moved with Margriet to Delft to operate a brewery. He was not very successful in this venture, but he did produce one of his most famous paintings during this time, “A Burgomaster of Delft and His Daughter”.
When he was 34 years old, he moved to Haarlem, where he was very productive, eventually having eight children with Margriet, and also painting prolifically. He was pretty well-paid for his work. His portraits of children were much-appreciated and he delved into a variety of other subjects as well. When his wife and father died about ten years later, he moved back to Leiden, where he stayed for the rest of his life.
1672 was a year of huge turmoil and upheaval for the Dutch, as their government was overthrown by foreign forces. The Year of Disaster, as it was called, caused the art market to collapse but Jan Steen made the best of it, opened a tavern and, three years after his wife’s death, married Maria von Egmont, with whom he had another child.
Some of Steen’s scenes of crazy, messy households are so detailed and chaotic that some art experts feel he was warning his audience to think twice about having a large family like his! And yet his paintings also depict the happy spontaneity that is inherent in daily life for many families. The Dutch actually call big, disorganized families “Jan Steen households”.
Jan Steen was 53 when he died, having painted about 800 paintings, approximately 350 of which still survive. With all that painting, nine kids and his love of brewing and the pub life, he had little time to take on students, but his earthy and humorous style was an inspiration for painters to come.
Susan Trembath is a Southern California writer, editor and music composer. firstname.lastname@example.org