Who was Jan Steen?
Jan Steen was a famous Dutch genre painter, born in the seventeenth century. His paintings were marked by chaotic abundance of color. He drew his subjects mainly from the daily life around him. Born in a family of tavern keepers, it was natural that many of his paintings had tavern as a background. Merrymakers were one of his favorite subjects while families too were frequently portrayed in his works. However, he also looked beyond the real world and drew inspiration from the contemporary stage. Many of his paintings were also based on mythological, religious and historical subjects. However, in each of them, one can decipher an ethical message hidden beneath an inherent sense of humor. What is more, there are few artists who are as prolific as Jan Steen was. He painted more than eight hundred pictures, out of which three hundred and fifty have so far been traced. He did not have any known student, but his works have inspired many. Well known genre painter, Richard Brakenburg, is considered to be one of his followers.
Childhood & Early Years
Jan Steen was born, in 1626, in Leiden, to Havick Jans Steen and Elisabeth Wijbrands Capiteijn. Havick Jans was a well to do brewer and for two generations, the family ran a tavern called ‘the Red Halbert’. Jan was the eldest of the couple’s eight children.
Jan Steen had his initial education at Latin School. In 1646, he enrolled at Leiden University, but did not complete his courses there. Instead he took apprenticeship under the renowned painter Nicolaes Knupfer.
One can decipher that Steen was much influenced by his master Nicolaes Knupfer from his composition and color. Many experts believe that he was also inspired by other artists like Adriaen van Ostade and Isaac van Ostade; but it is not known whether he had actually studied under them.
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By 1648, while stil living at Leiden, Jan Steen had established himself as a painter. In that year, he along with Gabriel Metsu, founded the ‘Painters’ Guild of St. Luke’ at Leiden. It was named after Evangelist Luke, the patron saint of artists, who is said to have painted the portrait of Virgin Mary.
By 1649, Jan Steen shifted his base to Hague and became an assistant to the well known landscape painter Jan Van Goyen. Later, he moved in with Van Goyen and subsequently married his daughter.
Steen worked with Van Goyen until 1654 and then moved to Delft. To augment his income, his father leased a brewery named ‘De Slang’ on his behalf in Delft. It is said, he had also opened a tavern in his home. However, he was not much successful in these ventures.
Jan Steen continued painting and in 1655, created one of his masterpieces, ‘A Burgomaster of Delft and his daughter’. Because of an explosion in a gunpowder store on October 12, 1654 much of Delft was destroyed. Its economy was also ruined and art market became depressed.
Ultimately in 1656, Steen moved to Warmond and lived there till 1660. His house in Wamond has been preserved till date. His paintings during this period show his increased interest in still life details. The paintings were also better finished than before.
In 1660, Jan Steen moved to Haarlem and lived there until 1670. During this period, he painted many masterpieces. Many of them depicted large and complex scenes portraying families and merrymakers. They all came with moralizing messages or witty evocations of proverbs.
During this period, he also drew many classical paintings which had been inspired by contemporary state. His 1667 painting ‘Anthony and Cleopatra’ falls in this category.
His wife Margriet died in 1669. Then in 1670, his father too passed away. Jan Steen then decided to return to Leiden. He spent rest of his life here creating many more masterpieces. During this period, his paintings became increasingly elegant.
When the art market collapsed in 1672, Jan Steen once again went back to his family vocation and opened a tavern in his home in Leiden. Throughout his life, Steen produced over eight hundred paintings, out of which three hundred fifty paintings have survived.
In 1674, Steen became the President of St. Lucas guild, which he had cofounded in the beginning of his career. This is also the time, he befriended another Dutch painter Frans van Mieris the Elder and enjoyed having drinks together.
‘Peasants before an Inn’ (1653), ‘Rhetoricians at a Window’ (1658 – 1665), ‘The Merry Family’ (1668), ‘Beware of Luxury’ (1663), ‘The Dancing Couple’ (1663), ‘Marriage of Tobias and Sarah’ (1660), ‘The Feat of St. Nicolas’ (1665- 1668) are few of his major works that have been preserved in various museums across the world.
Personal Life & Legacy
Jan Steen married Margriet Grietje Jans van Goyen on Ocober 3, 1649. She was the daughter of famous painter Jan Van Goyen. She bore him seven children named Eva, Constantinus, Havick, Johannes, Catharina, Cornelis and Thaddeus. Margriet died in 1669.
Four years after the death of his first wife, Jan Steen tied the knot for a second time. He married Maria van Egmont in April, 1673. She bore him a son named Theodorus.
Jan Steen died in Leiden on February 3, 1679 and was interred at Pieterskerk in their family grave.
The popular Dutch proverb ‘een huishouden van Jan Steen’, meaning a ‘Jan Steen household’ refers to a messy household. However, it does not mean that his household was actually disorganized. In reality, the proverb has its origin in Jan Steen’s paintings, which were as much lively as they were chaotic.