In Luxury, Look Out by Jan Steen

In luxury Look out by Jan Steen (1663)

The first ever painting of My Daily Art Display was the Netherlandish Proverbs by Pieter Bruegel the Elder and today’s painting has many similarities to that great work of art.

My Daily Art Display for today is entitled In Weelde Siet Tot, (In Luxury, Look Out) painted by the Dutch artist Jan Steen in 1663.  Steen was born in 1626 in Leiden, Netherlands and came from an affluent Catholic family who ran a brewery and tavern named the Red Halbert.  After he passed through the local grammar school he settled down to an artistic education in Utrecht under the German-born, Dutch Golden Age painter, Nicolaes Knupfer.  In 1648 Steen, with his friend Gabriel Metsu, founded the painters’ Guild of St Luke at Leiden.  A year later he became an assistant to the Dutch landscape painter Jan van Goyen who was also his landlord.  In 1649 Steen married van Goyen’s daughter Margriet and this couple went on to have eight children.

Jan Steen’s favourite theme for his paintings was ordinary daily life.  The scenes he painted were often lively and chaotic and the Dutch to this day often use the phrase “A Jan Steen household” meaning a chaotic and messy household.  His paintings of household chaos were supposed to act as a warning to observers that life needed to be more organised and orderly.  Today’s painting is one of these typical works of art of Jan Steen – chaotic, messy and full of hidden meanings.

In today’s painting Steen interprets the moralistic truths of Dutch genre painting as a humorist in which realistic actions and educational advice are confused.  Steen has illustrated in his painting various examples of overindulgence and recklessness in a degenerate household.  Many of the individual scenes within this painting allude to Dutch proverbs and sayings, similar to Bruegel’s Proverbs painting.  The housewife sitting left of centre in a respectable dress, who is probably the head of the household, has fallen asleep at the table and unbeknown to her, chaos has broken out around her.  Asleep with tiredness or asleep through inebriation ?

In the painting we have a plain room in a house which has fallen into complete chaos.  We can see four adults, an adolescent, three children, a baby, a pig, a monkey and a dog.  A young woman faces us with a glass of red wine in her left hand placing it on the crotch of the man sitting next to her.  Her low-cut neckline would be more customary on a barmaid or a prostitute.  The man next to her is distracted by a woman and an older gentleman, who is reciting to him from the book he holds.  The older man is standing slightly hunched over his book and has a duck on his shoulder which is staring at another young man as he plays a violin and at the same time is watching a young girl stealing a coin from a purse.  The woman sleeps on despite the chaos and does not hear the bowl crashing to the floor knocking over the pewter tankard.  Next to her is a small boy with a pipe, possibly blowing smoke at her in order to wake her up and alert her to the fact that the dog standing on the table is eating their meat pie.  The baby sitting at the table turns around and stares at the barrel spilling beer onto the floor.  Why is the beer pouring out of the barrel ?  Look at the pig on the right of the painting and see what he has in its mouth – the beer barrel tap !  The pig with its teeth clenched around the tap is nuzzling a rose on the floor which has fallen from the stem of roses in the man’s hand.  Scattered across the floor is the man’s hat, his pipe a number of pretzels.  Couple these with the large amounts of alcohol on show one could not be blamed for thinking the setting for this painting is a tavern or brothel.  However because of the presence of children, the kitchen to the right of the scene and the purse above the violinist one has to revert to the belief that this is simply a room in somebody’s house.

In the foreground at the right there is a slate leaning against a step and it is inscribed with the first part of a Dutch proverb:  In weelde siet tot, which translated means “In Luxury, Look Out”.  The ending of the proverb, (not inscribed on the plate) is “and fear the rod”.  Translated it means “beware the punishment which follows excess as fortunes often change especially through bad management”.  Maybe as a reminder of such consequences the artist has painted a basket hanging from the ceiling, in which one can see, precariously hanging out of it, crutches and a sword.  On the floor we see playing cards littering the floor while at the top right we see a monkey stopping a clock.  Maybe the stopping of the clock stopped the passage of time, giving the artist time to record the proliferation of chaos !  This is a large painting, 1.5m across and would have taken the artists weeks, maybe months to sketch in all the characters.

As the woman sleeps....


Total and utter chaos !  But should we read more into the painting?  Take for instance the sleeping woman and the child furtively stealing money from the purse in the cupboard.  Could this mean that if one is not resolute and in control of what is happening around one, then poverty will follow?   This is indicated by the flat purses hanging on the wall above the woman’s head and which appear to be empty and devoid of coins.  The dog being allowed to get on the table and eat the food of the humans underscores the negligence of the adults and sets out a bad example to the children.  Moralists traditionally likened dogs licking pots to children being brought up badly.  

What of the pig ?   There is a Dutch proverb which says “The pig runs off with the tap” meaning “the party is drinking with abandon”. 

The snuffling pig

The pig nuzzling the rose was a reminder of another proverb.   “Throwing roses before the swine” meaning wastefulness.  The monkey stopping the clock reminds us of the saying “In folly, time is forgotten”.  A “quacking” duck symbolizes nonsensical banter.  The duck on the man’s shoulder therefore probably alludes to his conversation being futile banter during which they have chosen to ignore the chaos around them.

Hanging basket

Will the occupants of this room receive what they deserve for their lack of attention ?  The artist hints that they may receive their “come uppance” by in the way he drew a basket hanging from the ceiling above their heads – a kind of Sword of Damocles !  The content of this hanging basket is full of items which suggest poverty and disease.  There are crutches, a leper’s rattle and switches which were used to lash petty criminals.

This painting by Jan Steen is a real but comical distortion of a Dutch family household, living in chaotic conditions and may act as a warning to observers of the folly and the consequences of such a lifestyle.  If you live in chaotic conditions maybe you should go out and buy yourself a print of this painting and hang it on the wall to remind yourself and your housemates of the dire consequences of living in such disarray.

Author: jonathan5485

Just someone who is interested and loves art. I am neither an artist nor art historian but I am fascinated with the interpretaion and symbolism used in paintings and love to read about the life of the artists and their subjects.

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