During the 17th century, Dutch genre painting flourished, appealing to middle class patrons by depicting everyday life with charm and often a moral. Jan Steen was among the most successful genre painters, weaving witty commentary into his pictures of merriment. Rhetoricians at a Window, c. 1661-1666 (oil on canvas, 29 7/8 x 23 1/16 inches) serves as an exemplar, depicting a naturalistic scene combined with layers of meaning. Even the title may be read on many levels. Just as a rhetorician may refer to an eloquent speaker, so, too, may it allude to a pompous or bombastic person.
Rhetorician also conjures up the notion of rhetoric, or the act of making a persuasive argument based on a point and counterpoint structure. This painting cleverly provides several layers of point-counterpoint arguments revealed through visual analysis, careful reading of physiognomy of the figures, and assessing the composition as a whole, including how it engages the viewer. Visually, Steen presents a naturalistic scene set in a tavern or inn, believable in its details. Four prominent figures are easily readable, not cartoonish or types, but portrayed with individualistic features.
Two more shadowy figures emerge from the background. The four figures up front are framed in a window that fills the upper 2/3 of the painting, pushed forward in shallow space to the picture plane. The location is identifiable as a public place where drink is served by the prominent, diamond-shaped sign, nailed to the window frame just off center, hanging in the lower third of the painting. The sign features crossed swords, common symbols for power, protection, justice, courage, and strength. Here, the crossed swords also serve as an apt emblem for the crossed arguments of the point and counterpoint of rhetoric.
Across the top of the painting is a swag of grapevine, with a bunch of grapes just right of center and another bunch on the far left, as the vine tumbles down the left window frame. The lively swoop of the grapevine softens the strong geometry of the rest of the composition. The window dominates the frame and is comprised of a central cross inside its rectangular shape, suggesting the possibility of a moral at the center of this story. The cross also implies a crossroad, choices to be made when a point and counterpoint intersect.
Both the top of the window’s rectangle and the bottom of the sign’s diamond are cropped out of the picture, creating an immediacy and aliveness of a zoomed-in vantage point. The diamond of the sign is mirrored in diamond-shaped leaded glass in the top two quadrants of the cross. Close examination reveals that two of the panes are broken, perhaps by revelers inside. The brick structure of the building adds more geometry with stabilizing verticals and dominant horizontals, which buttress the horizontal window ledge.
The colors are earthy and muted, reflecting the earthy scene. The red velvety cap of a figure just right of center immediately attracts attention, but the rest of the palette is marked by shades of brown, golden yellow, and soft green. The bricks appear textural, accomplished through illusionistic shadow in the mortar to suggest depth, and laying down smooth layers of multiple color, with oranges and greens highlighting the tans and browns, as if the architecture were alive and organic, changing colors over time.
The sign’s diamond frame is matted in deep brown, mustard yellow and rust, indicating a place of lusty, earthy pursuits. The day is warm enough for the shutters to be open, revealing the scene, yet the hint of color on the grapevine and a bare branch to the right suggest the transformations of autumn. As the leaves turn colors and fall, Steen hints at the passage of seasons, time, and life. Steen’s attention to detail is not overworked and suits the scene. Paint is laid smoothly, and up close, individual strokes are apparent. But only the faces of the figures are detailed.
While the hands of the up front figures hint at tendons and veins without being meticulous, the hands of the figures behind are crudely drawn, suggesting their crude activities. Long brushstrokes create the simple clothing of the figures. Their plainness suggests the men are middle or laborer class. Just as Steen carefully chooses what to depict with detail, so, too, does he use frames within frames as a deliberate device. In addition to filling the picture frame with a close up of the scene, Steen also creates another frame with the window, where the figures congregate.
Each quadrant of the window creates frames, with the two lower quadrants filled by the men. Three figures break the window frame illusionistically. One on the left leans out the window, with his elbow over the ledge, while another on the right rests his head on his hand, elbow perched on the window frame. A standing figure on the right, grasps the central frame, joining the two quadrants with a v-shaped arm. Separating the figures by the construction of the crossed window frame suggests that they represent different points and counterpoints. Each figure has a narrative, with a distinctive face and gestures full of information.
The man on the left leaning out the window, with a pince-nez perched on his bulbous nose, forehead highlighted by an unseen, somewhat ambiguous light source, holds a sheet with writing just discernible. It may read “List,” and with his heart shaped mouth open and smiling, he acts as a rhetorician reading the paper’s list. His merriment suggests he is not the author of the article, or if he is, he satirizes another’s words. In his cotton shirtsleeves and leather vest, with a starched collar (though not the elegant gathered ruff), this man appears the most affluent of those gathered.
His mirthful, or perhaps sarcastic, reading of the tract commands attention. The man behind him, mouth open, perhaps also speaking, seems both serious and willing to follow the orator. In the rear is a man, head tipped all the way back, downing a drink with no refinement or subtlety, light just catching the rim of the glass. In the right hand quadrant, the narratives become more subtle. In front, the figure leaning on his hand, grasps an enormous tankard, brightly lit from the left, with his other. His large nose is also highlighted, as if projecting the effect of the former on the latter.
The look on his face suggests that even though he is listening to the reading, he is bored, as if he has heard it all before, and feels condescension for the speaker whom he considers a blowhard. The drink in the tankard will see him through. The pipe, an unused source of pleasure tucked in his jaunty hat brim, points with its bowl in a strong diagonal away from the scene, where for him, life may be more amusing. In contrast to his airs, the seam of his jacket sleeve has split. Just behind him is the standing figure whose ruddy complexion also suggests familiarity with drink.
His red, velveteen turban, with its wispy feather, appears flamboyant enough to suggest the artist himself and similar to one used in his self-portrait. The headgear may be tipped with metal bells, so that Steen cleverly positions himself as the wise Shakespearean fool. This figure is the only one who acknowledges the viewer, and his red cap makes him hard to ignore. His direct gaze marked by a white daub of paint creating a twinkle, along with his sly grin and upraised finger pointing vaguely toward the viewer, all seem to say, “see, I told you. This directness brings the viewer into the scene as an invited guest of the artist and into the argument about its meaning. The figure seems to raise the question of who is the fool here? He may dress the part, but he instructs the viewer to consider the folly of the orator who seems so confident in his mirth. The title refers to Rhetoricians, plural, so that not only is the speaker a rhetorician, but so too is the standing figure, who argues a point of view. With the direct gaze of the figure and the head on vantage point of the scene, the viewer is perhaps placed in a window across the alley.
The speaker is reading the tract for the viewer’s edification. The viewer makes a choice-to stay separate or become another rhetorician at a window. Since the viewer stands on the same side with the light source, Steen suggests that the viewer has the knowledge and common sense to make a good choice. The viewer is also given the choice about who to believe-the figures on the left or the figures to the right. Steen argues his own position. The standing figure breaks the boundary between the two quadrants, but stands firmly on the right.
The sign and the bunch of grapes in the vine just above are both off center, favoring the right. The heads of the figures on the left form an arrow pointing toward the right, while the figures on the right make an upright “v” with the inclusion of a ghostly specter of a figure behind. These visual cues invite the viewer to take a position, to follow the lead of the standing, all-knowing fool. The painting then sets up a tension of right and left, wise and foolish, knowing and ignorant, insightful and oblivious.
This duality coincides with the rhetoric of persuasive argument, point and counterpoint. The crossed swords of the sign are presented as a challenge of the counterpoint to the point, while also advocating that the viewer be courageous and take a stand. Steen wittily argues that each person makes choices about how to face life’s challenges-to drink oneself into oblivion, to mock life, to follow without thought, to be bored and judgmental, or to laugh at the folly of mankind. On the one hand, the left quadrant argues for merry making with drink and ideas.
No idea is so important it cannot be laughed at and questioned. On the other side, the right presents doubters, naysayers, and those who laugh at it all. The vertical that divides the two poles of argument seems unyielding, yet the clever man can reach around and grab the best of both, uniting the laughter. The grapevine seconds the fool’s implication that life is full of the folly of man. The vine’s subtly highlighted leaves transition from the green of summer, color fading before the viewer’s eyes, into the golden tones of autumn.
The grapevine’s message is that the party is coming to its seasonal end, just as folly in the moment will also pass as the seasons’ turn. It sweeps across the picture and down, transcending and unifying any artificial boundaries, creating a curtain that reveals the stage set of the scene. The viewer is reminded that the frame, that is the painting, and its visual elements are theatrical and artificial. Steen again seems to reference Shakespeare with “all the world’s a stage,” and as life passes by, enjoy the moments full of frivolity and foolishness.
Steen as rhetorician argues that the party of life will come to an end. In the meantime, the unifying grapevine tops it all, reminding the viewer to make merry, a message that no doubt appealed to middle class art patrons. The viewer can make sense of what is shown, assess the moral implications, and take a stand. Like the fool, the viewer can embrace both sides of life, with all its contradictions. Living a moral life does not preclude having pleasures. Steen points to the viewer and encourages living a good life, but full of joy in the moment. Laugh, and become a rhetorician looking out the window on life.