Jan Steen’s paintings encompass a wide range of moods and subjects, from intimate scenes of a family saying grace before a meal to festive village celebrations, yet all of his paintings elicit a warm reaction to the lives of ordinary people. All five senses are represented in this work in which two young musicians play for a dancing couple while other people in the vine-covered arbor flirt, eat, drink, or smoke, and children amuse themselves with their toys. The grinning figure on the left who caresses the chin of the woman drinking from an elegant wine glass is none other than Steen himself. Despite the apparent frivolity of the scene, Steen used emblematic references such as cut flowers, broken eggshells, and soap bubbles to warn the viewer about the transience of sensual pleasures.
Many of Steen’s greatest paintings are large, complex scenes of families and merrymakers containing witty evocations of proverbs, emblems, or other moralizing messages. His pictures, which are marked by a sophisticated use of contemporary literature and popular theater, often depict characters from both the Italian commedia dell’arte and the native Dutch rederijkerskamers (rhetoricians’ chambers). Steen, one of the most versatile and prolific Dutch painters of the seventeenth century, was apparently less adept in his other profession as a brewer and innkeeper because, legend has it, he drank too much of his own inventory and spent more money than he earned. The relative chaos and merry mood of his paintings gave rise to the Dutch saying "to run a household like Jan Steen," meaning to have a disorderly house.
Arnold Houbraken begins his discussion of the life of Jan Steen with a general assessment of the relationship between an artist’s personality and the nature of his creativity:
One whose nature is inclined toward farce and jest is more qualified to represent something seriously than is a dry-spirited man able to paint some droll activity; . . . The one who is jocular in spirit uses all sorts of objects . . . that he represents and models naturally, sadness as well as joy, calmness as well as wrath, in a word, all bodily movements and expressions that result from man’s many emotions and passions.
Arnold Houbraken, De Groote Schouburgh der Nederlantsche Konstschilders en Schilderessen. 3 vols. (The Hague, 1753; reprint: Amsterdam, 1976), 3:12–13: “Een, welks natuur geneigt is tot klugt, en boertery, is bekwamer om iets ernstig te verbeelden, dan een droefgeestige om potsige bedryven door ‘t penceel te malen; . . . die boertig van geest is, bedient zig van allerhande voorwerpen . . . dat men alles even natuurlyk, zoo wei droefheid als vreugt, bedaarthheid als toorn, met een woort, alle Lichaams bewegingen, en wezenstrekken, die uit de menigerhande gemoedsdriften ontspruiten, weet te verbeelden, en na te bootsen.”
Although Houbraken’s musings about the relationship between an artist’s character and his works of art may have no factual basis, they do offer an appealing explanation for Steen’s empathy for the remarkably wide range of character types that populate his paintings. Whether or not, as Houbraken would like us to believe, Steen’s “paintings are as his manner of living, and his manner of living is as his paintings,”
Arnold Houbraken, De Groote Schouburgh der Nederlantsche Konstschilders en Schilderessen. 3 vols. (The Hague, 1753; reprint: Amsterdam, 1976), 3:13: “zyn schilderyen zyn als zyn levenswyze, en zyn levenswyze als zyne schilderyen.”
To judge from the span of ages and social classes enjoying the festivities in The Dancing Couple, Steen must have intended the viewer to understand that the celebration was taking place under a vine-covered arbor outside a country inn. The crowds surrounding the tents visible in the background suggest that a local village fair, or kermis, occasioned this party. One visitor to the kermis, the young girl with a white cap seen talking over the porch railing, holds a pinwheel, a child’s toy of the type sold at booths associated with such fairs. Another trinket that may well have been sold at the kermis is the delightful hammer toy proudly held by the young child on her mother’s lap.
According to Nynke Spahr van der Hoek from the Speelgoed- en Blikmuseum, Deventer (letter of July 27, 1989, in NGA curatorial files), this toy is probably German in origin. It appears to be the oldest representation of this type known. Such toys were sold only by peddlers or at fairs because toy shops did not exist in this era.
The kermis, however, was not only for children. People of all ages and social classes enjoyed the festivities, and they traveled from miles around to do so. Country and city folk alike marveled at the quacks who showed their wares, watched intently as traveling theatrical groups performed, and, most of all, ate, drank, and made merry. Proscriptions for proper behavior were temporarily put aside. In The Dancing Couple, the celebrants gather, intent upon enjoying sensual pleasures to their fullest, to eat, drink, smoke, and flirt with abandon. Indeed, all five senses are represented in the scene as well as all ages of man. To the enormous delight of onlookers, a young country ruffian has even led a comely and seemingly shy city lass to dance. Lasciviously bedecked in a beret decorated with cock feathers, he robustly kicks his feet in time with the music while she demurely ventures forth, uncertain, but not unwilling to join in the fun.
Steen was a marvelous narrative artist, in large part because of the way he could exaggerate expressions, attitudes, and even his figures’ costumes to help tell his story. In this picture,
A photographic or digital image analysis method which captures the absorption/emission characteristics of reflected infrared radiation. The absorption of infrared wavelengths varies for different pigments, so the resultant image can help distinguish the pigments that have been used in the painting or underdrawing.
A photographic or digital image analysis method that visually records an object's ability to absorb or transmit x-rays. The differential absorption pattern is useful for examining an object's internal structure as well as for comparing the variation in pigment types.
This smaller version was sold at auction in 2007 as A Terrace with a Couple Dancing to a Pipe and Fiddle, Peasants Eating, and Merrymaking Behind (Sotheby’s, London, July 4, 2007, lot 36). This painting (oil on panel, 55.7 x 77.2 cm) is indistinctly signed "JSteen." Since it depicts, in reverse, the initial composition of The Dancing Couple, it must be by the artist’s hand and predate the National Gallery of Art’s version. It is the only known instance in which Steen created a reversed image of one of his works, and the only time he created an enlarged second version. Nothing is known about the circumstances surrounding the execution of either work, and no convincing explanation for the unique relationship between these two paintings in Steen’s oeuvre has been proposed.
A comparable change occurred with the laughing peasant standing outside the porch. Steen initially depicted him thrusting aloft a tall beer glass instead of holding the caged fowl on his head.
The arm and beer glass are visible to the naked eye on the surface of the painting.
Eddy de Jongh, “Erotica in vogelperspectief: De dubbelzinnigheid van een reeks 17de-eeuwse genrevoorstellingen,” Simiolus 3 (1968–1969): 22–74.
No matter how humorous or empathetic Steen’s narratives might be, they were rarely conceived without some comment on the foibles of human behavior. In so doing he drew upon his wide-ranging familiarity with Dutch proverbs, as well as literary and emblematic traditions. A Dutch viewer, for example, would have recognized in the centrally placed empty barrel a reference to a well-known folk saying adapted as an emblem in Roemer Visscher’s Zinne-poppen: “Een vol vat en bomt niet” (A full barrel doesn’t resound)
Roemer Visscher, Sinnepoppen (Amsterdam, 1614). The full text of the emblem is as follows: “Dese Sinnepop is soo klaer datse weynigh uytlegginghe behoeft: want men siet dat de onverstandighe menschen de aldermeeste woorden over haer hebben, op straten, op marckten, op wagens en in schepen; daer de verstandighe wyse lieden met een stil bequaem wesen henen gaen.”
Hendrick Goltzius (after?), Quis Evadet (The Allegory of Transitoriness), 1594, engraving; see Walter L. Strauss, ed., The Illustrated Bartsch, vol. 1 (New York, 1978), 292, no. 10 (97).
For a discussion of this theme in Dutch art and literature see Eddy de Jongh et al., Tot Lering en Vermaak: betekenissen van Hollandse genrevoorstellingen uit de zeventiende eeuw (Amsterdam, 1976), 45–47.
With the tenuous relationship of the ill-matched dancing couple Steen certainly sought to provide a warning about the transience of sensual pleasures. As a contrast he included other couples whose attachments are built upon firmer foundations. Seated around the table are three pairings in which the love between the figures can be construed only in a positive sense: the mother who playfully holds her child on her lap, the old couple who have grown together over the years, and the young adults, whose tender love is evident in the way the man reaches over to touch his partner.
This interpretation is reinforced by the fact that the model for the man is Steen, and the woman has been identified as his wife. The identification was first made by Ben Broos, in Ben P. J. Broos et al., Great Dutch Paintings from America (The Hague, 1990), 422, on the basis of a comparison with an image of a woman who has been tentatively identified as Steen’s wife, Grietje van Goyen, in a painting in the Mauritshuis, As the Old Sing, So Pipe the Young.
P. C. Hooft, Emblemata Amatoria (Amsterdam, 1611), 66, emblem 28: “Voor vryheyt vaylicheyt. In vancknis vordert my de Min; en was ick vry/Het ongheluck had onghelijck meer machts op my.” See also the Emblemata Amatoria online text at http://www.dbnl.org/tekst/hoof001embl01_01/hoof001embl01_01_0033.php, which interprets the emblem as follows: “Door de Min gevangen ben ik tegen dood beschut” (Captured by Love, I am safe from death, like a bird kept in its cage).
Finally, the toy that is held so prominently by the young child in her mother’s lap may well have been chosen by Steen as a means for commenting on the importance of harmony in human relationships.
For an excellent article that examines the ways in which children’s games could provide commentaries on adult life see Sandra Hindman, “Pieter Bruegel’s Children’s Games, Folly and Chance,” Art Bulletin 63 (1981): 447–475.
I would like to thank E. L. Widmann for calling my attention to this relationship in her seminar paper at the University of Maryland in 1990, “Jan Steen and the Philosophy of Laughter: Rederijkers and the Theatre of Genre.”
Jacob Cats, Spiegel van den Ouden ende Nieuwen Tijdt (The Hague, 1632), 14–15: “Die moeten yder mensch het sijne leeren geven, De man die vier’ het wijf, het wijf haer echten man, Soo isset dat het huys in vrede blijven kan.”
The large scale of this work is characteristic of Steen’s paintings during the years that he worked in Haarlem. While the refined technique in which he worked during the mid-to-late 1650s, when he was active in Leiden and Warmond, is still evident in the sheen of the fabrics worn by the women, the brushwork here is quite free and expressive. It would appear that the artistic climate in Haarlem, where both
Scenes devoted to dancing at a kermis occur in works by
Lyckle de Vries, “Jan Steen, ‘de kluchtschilder,’” Ph.D. diss. (Rijksuniversiteit, 1977), 130, note 91, suggests that the composition is based on a composition by Pieter Brueghel the Younger (1564/1565–1637/1638) (see G. Marlier [posthumous, revised and annotated by Jacqueline Folie], Pierre Breughel le Jeune [Brussels, 1969], 440, 442, nos. 1, 2, and 3). Broos, in Ben P. J. Broos et al., Great Dutch Paintings from America (The Hague, 1990), 423, on the other hand, suggests a painting by Pieter Aertsen (1507/1508–1575).
As noted in Jan Steen (The Hague, 1958), no. 18, S. J. Gudlaugsson associated the subject of the painting with a scene from a play by Dirk Buysero, De bruilof van Kloris en Roosje (The Wedding of Kloris and Roosje). The play was not written until 1688, however, so this theory cannot be supported.
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.
April 24, 2014
lower left, JS in ligature: JSteen. 1663
Possibly (sale, The Hague, 24 April 1737, no. 7). probably Graf van Hogendorp; probably (his sale, The Hague, 27 July 1751, no. 6). Pieter Bisschop [c. 1690-1758] and Jan Bisschop [1680-1771], Rotterdam, by 1752; purchased 1771 with the Bisschop collection by Adrian Hope [1709-1781] and his nephew, John Hope [1737-1784], Amsterdam; by inheritance after Adrian's death to John, Amsterdam and The Hague; by inheritance to his sons, Thomas Hope [1769-1831], Adrian Elias Hope [1772-1834], and Henry Philip Hope [1774-1839], Bosbeek House, near Heemstede, and, as of 1794, London, where the collection was in possession of John's cousin, Henry Hope [c. 1739-1811], London; by inheritance 1811 solely to Henry Philip, Amsterdam and London, but in possession of his brother, Thomas, London; by inheritance 1839 to Thomas' son, Henry Thomas Hope [1808-1862], London; by inheritance to his wife, née Adèle Bichat [d. 1884], London; by inheritance to her grandson, Henry Francis Hope Pelham-Clinton-Hope, 8th duke of Newcastle-under-Lyme [1866-1941], London; (P. & D. Colnaghi & Co. and Charles Wertheimer, London), 1898-1901; (Thos. Agnew & Sons, Ltd., London); sold 1901 to Peter A.B. Widener, Lynnewood Hall, Elkins Park, Pennsylvania; inheritance from Estate of Peter A.B. Widener by gift through power of appointment of Joseph E. Widener, Elkins Park; gift 1942 to NGA.
- British Institution for Promoting the Fine Arts in the United Kingdom, London, 1818, no. 138, as Merrymaking.
- British Institution for Promoting the Fine Arts in the United Kingdom, London, 1849, no. 84, as A Merrymaking.
- Possibly British Institution for Promoting the Fine Arts in the United Kingdom, London, 1866, no. 33, as A Dinner Party.
- Exhibition of of Works by the Old Masters, and by Deceased Masters of the British School. Winter Exhibition, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1881, no. 124, as A Village Fête.
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- Great Dutch Paintings from America, Mauritshuis, The Hague; The Fine Arts Musuems of San Francisco, M. H. de Young Memorial Museum, 1990-1991, no. 59, color repro., as Dancing Couple at an Inn.
- Jan Steen: Painter and Storyteller, National Gallery of Washington, D.C.; Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, 1996-1997, no. 20, repro.
- Loan to display with permanent collection, The National Gallery, London, 2003-2004.
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The medium-weight, plain-weave fabric support is loosely woven. It has been lined with the tacking margins trimmed, and broad cusping is visible at top and bottom. A light-colored or white ground was applied smoothly and thinly overall. A creamy pink-colored underpainting of thick, rich paste paint was applied in broad striated strokes to the areas of the sky and floor, with reserves left for the dancing couple, barrel, trellis, musicians, and seated foreground figures. The poultry vendor and trio behind the fence were executed over the underpaint layer.
Paint was applied in thin, opaque layers of rich paste blended wet-into-wet with lively brushwork. The X-radiographs show the underpainted areas and several artist’s changes. The dancing man originally wore a smaller collar and was portrayed hatless with an outstretched proper left arm. When the arm was lowered to its present position he held the hat in his hand. The opened door was added over the sky, and changes were made in the hat of the man slouched against it. The church steeple was taller and the poultry vendor’s raised left hand had a tall glass in it. Infrared reflectography also showed minor changes to the contours and profiles of the other figures. 
Small losses are found between the barrel and the dancing man, to the left of the poultry vendor, in the serving maid at the far left, and along the edges. Slight abrasion is present overall. The blue skirt of the woman at far left and the bricks above her were unfinished. The painting was treated in 1930 and again in 1944–1945. During the latter treatment, the painting was relined and discolored varnish and inpainting were removed.
 Infrared reflectography was performed with a Hamamatsu c/1000–03 vidicon camera fitted with a lead sulphide tube and a Kodak Wratten 87A filter.
Related IconClass Terms
- five senses
- chicken +used symbolically
- barrel +used symbolically
- parental love
- popular feasts
- social groups
- nobility and patriciate
- the poor
- the rich
- artist +Pieter Bruegel the Elder + influence of
- harmony +symbolical representation
- reciprocal love
- historical person +Jacob Cats