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.
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,” the artist must have felt comfortable among the young and the old as well as the wise and the foolish. In paintings such as The Dancing Couple, he could depict with equal ease the tender warmth of a mother’s love and the raucous laughter of an inebriated country peasant. His empathy for people is evident not only through the conviction with which he represented such figures and their emotions but also in the way he included himself as a participant in the scene. For who should be sitting at the banquet table in the midst of this outdoor celebration but Steen, grinning widely as he reaches over to chuck a woman’s chin as she drinks from her wine glass.
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.
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. X-radiographyA 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. [fig. 1] [fig. 1] X-radiograph composite, Jan Steen, The Dancing Couple, 1663, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Widener Collection, 1942.9.81 and Infrared ReflectographyA 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. [fig. 2] [fig. 2] Infrared reflectogram, Jan Steen, Dancing Couple, 1663, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Widener Collection, 1942.9.81 indicate that after Steen had laid in his initial monochromatic sketch, he made a number of compositional changes to accentuate the contrast between the two main protagonists. Initially, the male dancer was bareheaded. He held a rather ordinary hat, with no feathers, and wore a smaller collar. His pose, in reverse, approached that of the comparable figure in a smaller-scale depiction of the scene on panel, which may well have been Steen’s first essay with this composition [fig. 3] [fig. 3] Jan Steen, A Terrace with a Couple Dancing to a Pipe and Fiddle, Peasants Eating and Merrymaking Behind, c. 1663, private collection (Sotheby’s, London, 4 July 2007, lot 36) . Photo courtesy of Sotheby's Picture Library. By placing the beret with its cock feathers on the man’s head and by enlarging the collar to the point where it becomes inappropriate for the rest of his costume, Steen emphasized that this villager was playing the role of a dandy in search of sensual pleasure.
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 transformation of the peasant from a celebrant to a passerby who has stopped to observe the scene may well have been made to emphasize the unusual character of this pair of dancers. By making the peasant into a poultry seller, however, Steen changed not only the nature of the man’s participation but also his thematic impact. The Dutch verb vogelen means both “to bird” and “to have sexual intercourse,” and a number of Dutch paintings of poultry sellers play upon the pun. The poultry seller, thus, was almost certainly intended to highlight the sexual undertone of the dance taking place directly before him.
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) [fig. 4] [fig. 4] Roemer Visscher, “Een vol vat en bomt niet,” emblem from Zinne-poppen, Amsterdam, 1614. Visscher’s emblem implied that ignorant people fill the air with words, but wise, sensible people deport themselves in a quiet, capable manner. While this reference can be seen as a general commentary on the foolishness of the dancing couple performing just behind the barrel, Steen also emphasized the transient character of the illicit pleasures being sought and enjoyed by including other motifs that carried certain symbolic connotations. The most obvious of these are the broken eggshells and cut flowers that have fallen onto the floor, motifs that have traditional vanitas associations in Dutch art. The same theme is more subtly indicated with the boy blowing bubbles, a visual reference to homo bulla, the idea that man’s life is as a bubble. Although it looks wondrous and glistening at its best, it can disappear in an instant.
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. To emphasize the disparity between the dancing couple and these groups Steen has once again included objects from daily life that have associations with images from emblem books. Above the old couple, for example, hangs a cage with two birds, which resembles an emblematic image in P. C. Hooft’s Emblemata Amatoria, first published in Amsterdam in 1611. The emblem “Voor vryheyt vaylicheyt” (Instead of freedom, safety) [fig. 5] [fig. 5] P. C. Hooft, “Voor vryheyt vaylicheyt,” emblem from Emblemata Amatoria, Amsterdam, 1611 stresses that love is strengthened when limits are placed upon it, and that with freedom comes danger. The contrasts in meaning between this cage with birds and the cage held by the poultry seller could not be more extreme.
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. As the slats of this toy are moved to and fro, two men hammer in unison at a stake between them. In character the toy relates to an emblem in Jacob Cats’ Spiegel van den Ouden ende Nieuwen Tijdt (The Hague, 1632), in which a number of men work in timed unison as they hammer on an anvil [fig. 6] [fig. 6] Jacob Cats, Spiegel van den Ouden ende Nieuwen Tijdt, The Hague, 1611. Cats’ commentary broadens the theme of teamwork by emphasizing that to live together in harmony each person must contribute his or her own special quality. In particular he notes that when the husband honors his wife and the wife her spouse, the household lives in peace.
The large scale of this work is characteristic of Steen’s paintings during the years that he lived in Haarlem. While the refined technique in which he painted 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 Frans Hals (Dutch, c. 1582/1583 - 1666) and Adriaen van Ostade (Dutch, 1610 - 1685) were active, encouraged such loosening in his painterly technique. It may also be that the traditionally strong bonds between Haarlem artists and Flemish traditions reinforced Steen’s predilection to look back to Flemish prototypes for his composition.
Scenes devoted to dancing at a kermis occur in works by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Netherlandish, c. 1525/1530 - 1569), and were frequently represented by other artists working in the Bruegel tradition. The closest in concept are the kermis paintings by David Teniers the Younger (Flemish, 1610 - 1690) [fig. 7] [fig. 7] David Teniers the Younger, The Village Feast, 1651, oil on copper, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. Photo: Studio Tromp, Rotterdam, in which festive peasants of all ages come together to enjoy the celebrations. Teniers’ paintings were well known to the Dutch, and one of his compositions may have inspired Steen to produce this memorable work. The figure of the man seated at a table near the dancers who reaches over to chuck a woman’s chin in The Dancing Couple is a motif that Teniers used often. Teniers also delighted in dressing his rakish peasants in berets decorated with cock feathers. Should Steen have looked at a painting by Teniers for inspiration, he transformed his Flemish prototype into a specifically Dutch idiom, in which visual delight in the sensuality of the image is tempered by a provocative intellectual and moralizing framework. To ensure that the human issues involved would be brought home, Steen confined his narrative to the foreground, where the pictorial world seems almost to mingle with the real, and the moral issues confronting the players become ones the viewer must consider as well.
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.
August 30, 2017