Jan Steen is recognized as one of the prominent artists of the Dutch Golden period right alongside Johannes Vermeer and Rembrandt van Rijn.
However, Steen didn’t get as much appreciation during his lifetime, leaving behind upwards of 500 unsold paintings when he died (Gold 213). He lived a modest life as an artist, supplementing his income over the years by opening a couple taverns and an inn. Daily life was Steen’s main pictorial theme and the tavern was a recurring setting for many scenes, especially during his period in Haarlem in the 1660s. His vivid portrayals of the Dutch social life were often humorous riddled with his own sort of moralizing, satirical comments he became recognized for. Steen has a real eye for comedy that deeply penetrated almost all of his paintings alas it was exactly this attention to humor that held him back from getting his foot in the fine art door. Vermeer’s poised stillness and Rembrandt’s dark, brooding imagery were praised as exemplars of Baroque style, making Steen’s artwork seem like a joke to some contemporaries.
Gaining a posthumous reputation as “Jan Steen, the ‘good-for-nothing’ slackard, capable of nothing better than drinking and jesting, he became the unfortunate bearer of a crass and low-class reputation in the art world. Although Steen might have lived his days at the alehouse, eventually turning his own dwelling into a tavern, his lifestyle should not detract from his real merits. Invariably categorized as a genre painter, Steen is also a gifted history painter, creating scenes showing the recreations of the middle and lower classes (TEXT 731). Although portions of his work are indeed humorous, they usually convey a serious message as well. Steen was more than a free drinker but a free liver and a philosopher with a profoundly acute eye. Located at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Jan Steen’s Rhetoricians at a Window (1658-65) is a 17th century Baroque oil painting, picturing four men hanging out the upstairs window of a Tavern.
As the title supposes they are members of a chamber of rhetoric; a type of dramatic and literary society popular in Holland and public readings like the one taking place in Rhetoricians at a Window were commonplace. Steen portrayed many scenes from the lives of the Rederijkers and while it’s unknown if he himself belonged, “the humanity, humour and optimism of the figures suggest that Jan Steen knew these men well, and wanted to portray them positively (Gudlaugsson). The characters in this scene have a genuine living quality to them. It feels like a real moment Jan Steen witnessed, capturing and exaggerating all the subtleties of their personalities and expression in ruddy detail.
The star figure of this composition is the group orator reading aloud from a paper titled; “Lof Liet or “Song of Praise . He hides the poem from us other than the title, making us wonder what the words of the poem are saying. Steen looked at the work of his peers for inspiration, and occasionally, he actually “quoted their work” directly on his own canvas or panel. (18) While it’s unclear if this is a direct reference to some other work, it could easily be a reference to Rembrandt’s Simeon’s Song of Praise (1631) which was a painting Jan Steen definitely knew of.
We have to surmise our own interpretation of the poem is like by reading into the faces of the people who are hearing it. The paintings from this period are full of differentiations of character and expression in the figures. This, together with the profusion of detail, the multiplicity of incident, the frequent proverbial or literary basis, and an occasional theatrical element, requires them to be “read” rather than simply experienced as a visual whole” (Gowing Web). Although there are four main characters gathered around the open window, we can discern a total of six male figures.
Steen wanted the orator to be the first person you see because in the painting he is the person you hear first. He leans out of the window to catch the words of the poem under the late afternoon light. The way the orator’s arm hangs out over, breaking the plane of the window creates a sort of trompe l’oeil effect within the frame and the orator feels like he’s projecting out; the closest one to us. His facial expression reads so well you can practically hear his own words in your head. The shadows depicted in the folds of his saturated blue sleeve makes the shirt almost look real. Over the orator’s shoulder, the man reading along is likely the author of the poem himself.
The poet’s expression is a reflection of the orators as if he’s unintentionally, unknowingly mouthing the words to his own poem as he follows silently. From the way that the poet is looking down at his work, it clearly feels like it is the first time he is getting the chance to hear his poem being read by someone other than himself. Mused by the sound of his own spoken words he isn’t even watching for any reactions. On the other side, an unamused critic provides a comical contrast to the jolly demeanor of the curator. He’s leaning in a restful position with his left hand supporting his head.
The right side of his body is in a much less relaxed position. His right shoulder is raised and the way his arm and elbow are away from his body gives the impression that he is very firmly clutching the large drinking vessel right hand. Perhaps, a mannered courtesy of the critic to remain still during a reading is causing his right arm to tense up while he patiently waits to take a sip of his drink. His indifferent expression is by far the hardest to read and it’s hard to tell if he’s staring intently at the poet or just blindly gazing at the back of the poem. His oversized hat just sort of floats about his head with what looks to be a pipe tong strapped to it.
It wouldn’t surprise me if the hat that Steen has painted on the critic was originally painted for someone who was sitting in a much different position. I can’t think of any logical justification for why the critic would be wearing such a hat so far of one side of his head. To the right of the hat hidden deep in the room is a extremely muddied figure who is wearing a similar type hat and looking out at us with his creepily distorted face. Even in comparison to the chugging figure in the background on the left, this hatted figure is rendered with such little detail that is hard to tell if it’s really a person in the scene.
It’s as if it’s an apparition we aren’t supposed to notice at first glance. The most striking figure in the center right of the frame, the jester, is also the most playful of the characters. Steen draws our attention to him, placing him at the center of the painting and crowning his head with a red hat. He’s looking directly out, acknowledging the viewer’s presence and actively participating with us. His eyebrows are raised with a mischievous grin, he’s wagging his pointer directly at us as if he’s about to catch us laughing. Often, there are subtle hints in Steen’s paintings, like that of the jester’s admonitory gesture, that seem to suggest that he “meant to warn the viewer rather than invite him to copy this behavior” (Gudlaugsson 15).
The goofing jester attempts to humor us at a time that, we both know, would be inappropriate to laugh during. While “it is often suggested that Jan Steen’s paintings are a realistic portrayal of Dutch 17th-century life, Steen is still known to employ the stratagems from theater to compliment his lavish and moralizing style” (Gudlaugsson 8). Before Rhetoricians at a Window was finished in 1965, Steen painted at least two other similar works, The Rhetoricians (1655) and The Rhetoricians of Warmond by Candlelight (1660). The three paintings all depict a group of rederijkers hanging out a tavern window during a poem reading. Notably, all three painting also features a coat of arms hanging below the window denoting a specific chamber of rhetoric.
In all three paintings, the blazon is cropped by the composition cutting off its lower half. If you look at the series as a more of an artistic development working towards a stronger single image its easy to see that with each subsequent painting Steen is working towards a unique vision. The development from the initial composition, moving towards more dramatic expressions and finally an atheistic that successfully renders his humorous vision using an abundance of color. Rhetoricians at a Window features the strongest composition by far.
“Jan Steen’s dated paintings, when viewed in chronological order from 1650 to 1670, can provide a tentative timeline of his palette and any unique pigments in his palette during specific years. Jan Steen painted a variety of styles and his quality of work also varied throughout his career” (Norbutus 55). This painting is one of Steen’s best, in it’s rich attention to detail, mastery of light, and elegant choice of colors. 7th century Dutch artists normally only had six or seven colors on their palette including “white gradually darkening via red (vermillion), light ochre and a brownish-red towards two dark greens, browns or blacks” (Norbutus 54).
Steen was known for his distinctive handling of salmon-red, pale yellows, blue greens, and pinker colors (45). The size of this painting is relatively average at 29 7/8 x 23 1/16 inches (or 75. 9 x 58. 6 cm) but the scale of the composition envelops the viewer in this rather intimate scene as if they were participating in the scene.
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