Celebrating the Birth by Jan Steen

Celebrating the Birth by Jan Steen (1664)

I do my best to feature paintings by artists that people may not have come across before and I try not to feature the same artist too many times but sometimes I cannot help but revisit works by my favourite artists and today is no exception.  My Daily Art Display featured painting today is entitled Celebrating the Birth by Jan Steen which he completed in 1664.  I have showcased work by this artist three times before.  On February 16th 2011 we looked at a work entitled In Luxury, Look Out.  On April 27th 2011, I featured his painting The Effects of Intemperance and finally on August 26th 2011, I gave you The Life of Man so if you like today’s work why not go and have a look at some other of Jan Steen’s paintings.

Before us we have a simple scene of a couple celebrating the birth of their child, or do we?  In fact there is more to this painting than a simple celebration of the birth of a baby.  Look closely at the painting and see what is odd about the Steen’s depiction of the event and see if you can work out what is happening in the scene.  I will give you a hint.  Look at the man who stands behind the baby and the baby’s father.  Before I reveal the secret about the painting let me first tell you a little about the artist, Jan Steen.

Jan Havickszoon Steen was born in the Dutch town of Leiden in 1626.  He, like his artistic contemporary, Rembrandt, attended the local Latin School of Leiden. And a year later in 1646 he enrolled at the University of Leiden.  His professional artistic training started the following year and came from the German-born, Dutch Golden Age painter, Nicolaes Knupfer.  It is thought that he also could have studied with Adriaen van Ostade and it was this artist’s low-life genre work which was to influence Jan Steen’s early works.  At the age of twenty-two Steen along with his artist friend Gabriel Metsu and a number of local painters founded the painters’ Guild of St Luke of Leiden.

In 1648, Jan Steen moved to The Hague and worked as an assistant at the workshop of the celebrated landscape painter, Jan van Goyen.  Van Goyen was, like Jan Steen, born in Leiden.  He had moved from Leiden to The Hague in 1631 where he set up his workshop.  Steen was not only employed by van Goyen but was also taken in by van Goyen’s family and lived with him, his wife Annetie and their daughters.     Jan Steen became very friendly with Margriet, one of van Goyen’s daughters and they married in 1649 and the couple went on to have eight children.  Steen’s association with his father-in-law lasted until 1654.

In 1654 he and his family moved to Delft where he ran a brewery which his father had rented for him.  It was called De Roscam (The Curry Comb) but although Steen had a great artistic talent his business acumen was sadly lacking and the brewery failed.  In 1657 he went to live in Warmond,  a town close to Leiden and it was here that he met and became friends with the artist, Frans van Mieris.  Frans van Mieris was a painter of genre scenes which depicted the habits and actions of the wealthier classes.  It was this type of art by van Mieris and the works of Te Borch that weaned Steen off his low-life genre paintings and influenced him to paint more elegant genre scenes.  Jan Steen left Haarlem in 1660 and moved back to Haarlem where he stayed for the next ten years.  In 1669, near the end of this stay his wife died and the following year his father passed away.  After his father’s death in 1670 Jan returned once again to Leiden where he remained for the rest of his life.  He remarried that year and his second wife, Maria van Egmont,  gave Jan two children.

For the Dutch people, the year 1672 became known as the rampjaar(disaster year) as this was the year that saw the start of the Franco-Dutch War and the Third Anglo Dutch War, which culminated in the defeat of the Dutch States Army and large swathes of the Republic was conquered by the invading troops.   Because of these wars the art market collapsed and Steen needed another source of income so in 1673 he opened a tavern. His work in the tavern meant that his artistic output diminished in his later years.

Jan Steen died on New Year’s Day 1679 in Leiden

And so let us go back to the featured painting.  Have you worked out the “sub-plot” depicted in this painting yet?  Steen is best known for his humorous genre scenes, warm hearted and animated works in which he treats life as a vast comedy of manners and this work of his is no different.  We are looking at a lying-in room.  Whenever the lady of the house was about to give birth, one of the rooms was set aside for this purpose. The lying-in room was used for the actual delivery, and later to receive visitors.  The birth of a child was, as it is now, a cause for celebration.  It is greeted with both happiness and pride and in the 17th century in the case of the birth of a son, it became even more of a celebration for economic reasons as a son would often carry on his father’s business and would inherit the family possessions.

In this painting Steen has depicted a group of revellers celebrating the birth of a child.  One can imagine the elated atmosphere within the room with all its merriment and drinking.  The majority of people in the room are women as men, including the father, were considered inappropriate interlopers in this female sanctuary.  The mother is in the left background of the painting lying in her bed being fed some broth.  Another woman sits at the end of the bed drinking to excess.     The others present will probably be female relatives, maidservants and the midwife.  Normally one would expect, as in most works of art depicting such an event, that the mother of the newborn baby would be the main focus of attention.  However Steen has made the proud father the main focus of this painting.  However he is not the only man in the painting.  Look at the figure behind the baby.  We see another man as he is about to creep out of the room.  Actually it is a self-portrait of the artist himself.  It was not simply to break tradition to see the two men in the painting but Steen wanted to convey a little information about what has happened and to the nature of the husband and wife’s relationship.

Sign of the cuckold

Look more carefully and you will see something which was not visible until the painting was cleaned in 1983.  The man leaving the room has made a cheeky two-fingered gesture above the baby’s head.     This gesture can be seen by all those in the room except the proud father.   From the young man’s gesture, Steen has made us aware that the ‘father’ has been made a cuckold. The gesture illustrates the tradition of “cuckold’s horns, and that the horns, visible to all but the man himself, will grow on the head of a man whose wife has been unfaithful. The proud father stands right of centre having been presented with his child.  His pride on the birth of his child is plain to see.  He is totally unaware of the ridicule and stands before us, puffed up, beaming with pride as he shows off his child.  Nobody seems shocked by this audacious gesture which tells us that everyone in the room appears to know what the man does not: that the child is not his..  There are other sexually symbolic inclusions in Steen’s painting to suggest not just sexual impropriety but implying the husband was impotent, such as the bed warming pan, which lays prominently on the floor in the foreground.  The warming pan reminds us of the adage, the only warmth in the marriage bed is the warming pan.   In the right foreground we see broken egg shells scattered on the floor and again this is a reminder that the phrase, cracking eggs into a pan, was a contemporary euphemism for sexual intercourse.

The demand for money

Steen has been very unkind with his depiction of the father in this portrait.  We see him wearing an apron and carrying keys like a housekeeper would do, thus implying a lowering of his status in the household.   We also see the old midwife at his shoulder demanding money for her services and to the right of the man, sat on a stool, is a maid with her hand out, seemingly demanding payment for making the celebratory broth.  Steen’s final degrading of the man is his depiction of the limp and ineffectual sausage hanging by the fireplace which does not need me to explain the connotation of such an inclusion!!

There is a moralistic point to the painting.   It is a warning tale of what happens when an older man marries a much younger woman.   In a way Steen has no qualms about depicting the man as a cuckold.  Maybe the modern saying of there’s no fool like an old fool has its roots way back in time.

The Fountain of Youth by Lucas Cranach the Elder

The Fountain of Youth by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1546)

Throughout time, mankind has always looked for ways to extend the longevity of life.  In modern times we have organ transplants, anti-aging creams and plastic surgery to either extend our life or if we accept the futility of that premise, then at least try and make oneself look younger.  We can now bathe in spas whose magical water quality are supposed to combat this disease or that disease and many who have bathed in these waters leave feeling cleansed and believe implicitly that the waters do heal them of their ailments and have rejuvenated them.  In past times there was always talk about the mythical Fountain of Youth in which the waters could reverse the ageing process.  Alexander the Great, who conquered most of the known world at the time, was thought to have been searching for a river that healed the ravages of age. Move forward to the 12th century and we hear of a puzzling letter sent to the Byzantine emperor Manuel I which started to circulate around Europe. It told of a magical kingdom in the East that was in danger of being overrun by infidels and barbarians. This letter was supposedly written by a king known as Prester John and talked about his kingdom which had rivers filled with gold and was the home of the Fountain of Youth.  Two centuries later, in 1513, it was recorded that the explorer, Ponce de León, was searching for the Fountain of Youth when he traveled to what is now Florida.   And so it goes on, this fascination with the mystical Fountain of Youth.

Artists have often recorded pictorially their take on this magical fountain and today I am going to take a look at one which was completed just over thirty years after Ponce de León’s voyage of discovery.  The painting, Der Jungbrunnen (The Fountain of Youth) is by the German artist Lucas Cranach the Elder which he completed in 1546.  It is about the human desire for immortality and eternal youth.  The old women in the painting crave to cast aside their worn outer shell, which is pale and wrinkled, and exchange their haggard looks by replacing their outer-self with a more acceptable younger version.

The examination

I like the mini-scene in the centre ground to the left of the pool where we see a man bent forward closely examining a naked woman.  What is that all about?  Is he an official or maybe a doctor who is examining how haggard the woman is to see if she fits the criteria for rejuvenation?  If this is the case, then for once to gain one’s admission to the pool old age and infirmity is requisite bargaining tool!

The Fountain

In many ways this simplistic depiction of the Fountain of Youth is quite amusing.  At the centre of the painting we observe a large square-shaped grey and white pool, at one end of which is the fountain.   The fountain gushes out water it has drawn from the spring below.  On the fountain there are statues of Venus and Cupid which, in some ways, is confirmation that this is more of a Fountain of Love and that maybe it is the power of love which is the rejuvenating factor.   The pool is populated by naked women.  Steps around the four sides of the pool lead down to the healing waters.  To the left of the painting we see elderly women, who have made the long and tiring journey, arriving in carts, on litters, in wheelbarrows or in one case piggy-backed on a man who can just about cope with her weight.  All want to bathe in the rejuvenating water.

Wheeled to the magical waters

The old women then alight from their transport, take off their clothes, examined and are helped into the square-shaped pool, the water of which is being topped up from the Fountain of Youth.   Once partly immersed in the magical waters the naked women begin to splash themselves with the water and frolic about, the cares of the world seemingly lifted from their shoulders.  Now that the women have regained their youthful looks they look at one another amazed by the change that has taken place.  They caress themselves or caress one another, hardly believing what they are seeing and feeling.  They comb their long flowing golden hair.  Their mood is one of triumph.  The power of the waters has worked.

In and out of the robing tent

If we now look to the right hand side of the pool we see that after having been immersed and had been revived by the recuperative powers of the waters, they step out of the pool, rejuvenated and once again young.  From the pool side, these gregarious young virgins are then directed towards a large tent in order to dress and after a short while they emerge as beautiful young ladies wearing the most exquisite clothes.  For them, the world has changed and they go off to dance or dine or find themselves a handsome young man whom they can take off to the seclusion of the bushes to……..

Although this undoubtedly is a humorous painting, I wonder whether Cranach intended to also moralize with his depiction.  On the left Cranach depicts the old women being brought to the waters by ordinary working-class types of people but note how, once rejuvenated and sumptuously dressed, the young women go off with the upper class nobility.  What happened to the poor men who almost carried their women to the pool?  Have they now been abandoned?  Another question the painting raises is why are there no men in the pool being rejuvenated?  Should we believe that in the 16th century it was only the women who sought rejuvenation?  Has nothing changed in the last five centuries?   Is the female current desire for rejuvenation by creams, potions and the surgeon’s knife any different to Cranach’s women immersing themselves in the Fountain of Youth?

One of the things I like about this painting is the number of mini-scenes taking place within the work.  Every time I look at the work, I notice something I had not seen before.  I saw this work of art when I visited the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin some time back, the same museum which houses the Netherländish Proverbs by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, another marvelous painting which is awash with mini scenes.

On the Brink by Alfred Elmore

On the Brink by Alfred Elmore (1865)

Today I am featuring a work of narrative art.  Narrative art is one that tells a story and has been very popular in Western art.  It often depicts stories from the Bible, mythological tales and legends and were often pictorial recordings of great moments in history.  In the seventeenth century we began to see such narrative works in the paintings of subjects from everyday life, which were known as genre paintings.  They originated in the main in Holland with scenes of peasant life and drinking scenes in taverns.  In England in the sixteenth century the artist William Hogarth invented the Modern Moral Subject paintings which brilliantly brought to our attention and lampooned the manners and morals in his day.  I featured a set of these paintings in My Daily Art Display (May 4th to May 9th 2011).  Before I talk about today’s painting, I will briefly tell you a little about the life of Alfred Elmore.  In the meantime, I want you to look at the painting and see if you can surmise what is going on and why the artist chose the title of On the Brink.

Today featured work is a Victorian narrative painting by English painter of Irish birth, Alfred Elmore.  Elmore was a Victorian history and genre painter, who was born in Cork in Southern Ireland.  His father, John Richard Elmore was a retired surgeon from the British Army.   His family moved to London and Alfred attended the Royal Academy Schools in 1832.  Whilst at the Academy he briefly associated with a group of fellow art students who had just formed a sketching society which they called The Clique.  It was described as the first group of British artists to combine for greater strength and to announce that the great backward-looking tradition of the Academy was not relevant to the requirements of contemporary art.

In the late 1830’s Elmore studied at French atelier and then from 1840 to 1844 travelled extensively through Europe visiting Munich Venice, Bologna, and Florence and spent two years in Rome.  In 1844 he exhibited his work entitled Rienzi in the Forum at the Royal Academy and this led to him becoming an Associate of the Royal Academy (ARA) the following year.  He became a Royal Academician in 1857.  Elmore painted a number of literary subjects, especially depicting scenes from the plays of Shakespeare but many of his later works were historical narrative works, some of which were wholly anti-Catholic in spirit.  Elmore’s reputation was at its height in the 1850’s but he suffered a lapse into comparative obscurity during the latter portion of his life.  He died of cancer in 1881, aged sixty-five.

And so I return to today’s painting entitled On the Brink which Alfred Elmore painted in 1865 and was probably his best known work.  It is termed a moral genre painting which may give you a clue to what is happening in the painted scene.  What do you make of the title of the painting?  Have you any idea why Elmore would give the work such a name?  I suppose to discover the answers to these questions one has to first identify what we are looking at.  We are standing outside a house and looking through an open window into a room which is the venue for some sort of gaming.  A man leans out of the window and is talking to an unhappy-looking woman who is seated outside.  That is the scene and the man and the woman are the main characters.

This painting, which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in London in 1865, clearly embellishes the concerns Victorian people had about gambling, especially when it involved young women. The artist has created a striking sense of depth within the painting. There is a great contrast in the colours used for the interior and the exterior.   In the foreground we have the outside tranquillity and paleness of the moonlight which contrasts with the dazzling red and gold gaudiness of the hustle and bustle going on inside the room.   Look at the garish colours of the gaming room.  The red wallpaper is lit by a chandelier and candles, which are reflected in gilt mirrors around the walls. A throng of people lean over a gaming table, totally absorbed in the action, which contrasts with the sorrowful state of the woman in the foreground. If we look to the left background we can see a curtained-archway which leads to another well-lit gaming room full of people.  We are almost certain we know the setting for this painting for there is a one word inscription, Homburg, on the reverse of the canvas.  In 1842, the German town of Bad Homburg had a casino and spa and had attracted a wealthy and cosmopolitan clientele to its gaming tables, of which many were British.

The woman with a decision to make.

The young woman, we see before us, sits unhappily outside in the darkness of the evening. Her figure is illuminated by the white light coming from the moon. We can only see one side of her face which is deathly white whilst the other side is hidden in the darkness of the night.  Her clothes are of a rich quality and the height of fashion.  Our first clue as to what the painting is all about is the empty purse which dangles from her right hand and a torn gaming card which lies discarded at her feet. From these clues we now know why she is in such a state – she has lost all her money at the gaming tables which we can see through the open window behind her.

The seducer

Still we haven’t reconciled the title of the painting but if we look at the shadowy figure of a man leaning out of the window talking to her all will be resolved.  His figure, apart from his hands, is neither illuminated by the light from the room nor the moonlight.  The way the young man is depicted, almost devil-like, adds a certain air of foreboding and menace and we feel that he is not a good companion for this lady.  It is interesting to see how the artist compares this mismatch with the couple in the middle ground.  They are standing in the room directly behind the shadowy figure and face each other in a loving stance.

The title of the painting can be understood a little better if we look at the flowers which are next to the woman.  There are two types of flower.  One is a white lily which symbolises purity whilst the other is the purple passion flower.  In the Punch magazine in the May of the year the painting was exhibited, an anonymous poet had written, about the scene and what we were looking at:

E’s [for] Mr. Elmore. She’s tempted to sin;
She’s fair. Will the lily or the passion flower win?

According to the poet’s understanding of the painting, it was all about the choice faced by the unfortunate young female who had just gambled away all her money and was now being propositioned by an unseemly man.   The question she is on the brink of answering is, should she retain her virtue and face the consequences of her new found poverty, or does she earn the money she needs to repay her debts by submitting to the proposition of the young man who is offering money for her body.  As we look at her she is “on the brink” of making her decision.  So we now know that the title of the painting derives from the situation in which a young woman s ‘on the brink’ of responding to the blandishments of a seducer, who is depicted as a Satan-like figure, luridly bathed in red light, and whispering corrupting thoughts in her ear.

There were a number of Victorian paintings which depicted “fallen women” and I will look at another in a few days time.  This one by Elmore, which he exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1865, was to greatly enhance his reputation as a Victorian artist.

The painting is presently housed in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

The Effects of Intemperance by Jan Steen

The Effects of Intemperance by Jan Steen (c.1665)

I have featured many paintings, mainly by Dutch or Flemish artists, which try and have an embedded moral message in their works of art.  Often it is about the dangers of drinking too much, which is a subject painters from our present time may find very topical.   My Daily Art Display today features one such 17th century painting entitled The Effects of Intemperance by the Dutch painter Jan Steen.

Jan Havickszoon Steen was born in 1626 in Leiden a town in the Netherlands and was a contemporary of the great Rembrandt van Rijn.  He received his artistic education from the German painter of the Dutch Golden Age, Niclaes Knupfer who gained a reputation for his historical and figurative scenes of Utrecht.  At the age of twenty-two Steen joined the Saint Lukes Guild of Painters in Leiden.  Steen then moved to The Hague where he lodged in the household of the prolific landscape painter Jan van Goyen.  Soon after, he married Margriet, the daughter of van Goyen.  Jan and his father-in-law worked together closely for the next five years.  Then he moved and went to live in Warmond and later Haarlem.  His wife died in 1669 and his father-in-law passed away a year later.  Steen returned to Leiden re-married and had two children and remained there until his death in 1679 at the age of  53.
So back to today’s featured painting which is a pictorial moral tale of the dangers of insobriety.  The painting illustrates well the Dutch proverb “De Wijn is een spotter” translated means: Wine is a mocker, in other words wine (or drinking it in excess) will make a fool of you.  Although we see the children misbehaving the onus of guilt is placed squarely on the shoulders of the adults.

The main character of the painting is a woman who we see sitting slumped on the steps of her house sleeping off the effects of having drunk too much alcohol.  The overturned flagon of wine lies on the floor and despite the noise and antics of the children she doesn’t wake.   She is being portrayed as the neglectful mother.  She is totally unaware of what is happening around her.  However, she is no peasant.  Look at her clothes.  These are not ragged and threadbare.  The fur-trimmed jacket, in fact, looks both expensive and stylish.  Maybe the moral of the tale is that an excess of alcohol can affect rich and poor alike.  Her comatose state is going to cause a disaster as we see that her lit pipe is just about to slide from her fingers on to her dress.  The hem of her dress rests perilously close to the rim of the small clay brazier by her side which she has been using to keep her pipe alight and soon her clothes will surely catch fire.  It should also be remembered that at this time in the Netherlands most houses were of wood construction and fire had become a great hazard of life for those living in these dwellings.

The child behind her is stealthily filching the purse from the pocket of her dress, watching her carefully in case she stirs.  Again we are reminded of the Dutch proverb which states “opportunity makes the thief”.  This painting, in some ways,  mirrors Pieter Bruegel’s Netherlandish Proverbs but on a smaller scale.    Look at the girl kneeling in front of the comatose woman. Maybe it is her eldest daughter.  She is offering the parrot a drink of wine from a glass.  The girl looks unsteady and her face is flushed.   Maybe she too has imbibed to excess.  Are we being reminded that the sins of the mother will be passed on to the child?

Next to the mother we see a boy clutching a bunch of roses.  He is throwing them to the pig which is busy snuffling around the legs of the woman in search of food.  We know of the biblical proverb “ Nether caste ye youre pearles before swine”  meaning that it is a worthless gesture of offering items of quality to those who aren’t cultured enough to appreciate them.  However the Dutch proverb doesn’t talk about pearls but instead – rose buds.  So what we are seeing in the painting is the rose-strewn pig, which simply symbolises how people waste what they have.

To the right of the mother we see three small children feeding a meat pie to the cat.  Again, this is highlighting the folly of waste.  It is interesting to note what is hanging above the drunken woman’s head.  It is a basket, in which there is a pair of crutches and a birch.  This is to be a reminder of what happens if you throw money away and mismanage your finances.  The crutch is a reminder of life as a beggar and the birch is a salutary warning of what happens if you are hauled to court because of bad debts.  Look back at My Daily Art Display of February 16th and Jan Steen’s painting entitled In Luxury, Look Out,  in which  the artist had depicted a similar scenario and the same moral tale that is being depicted by the artist in today’s painting.  In it we can see the same basket hanging above the miscreant.

Take a look at the background on the right hand side of the painting.  Here we see a man, maybe the husband of the drunken woman, sitting in the garden on a bench with a buxom young serving wench on his knee.  He is oblivious to what is going on around him and prefers to carouse with the young girl.

The Dutch painter and biographer of artists from the Dutch Golden Age, Arnold Houbraken, wrote about Jan Steen, recording that the household of Steen himself was both “riotous and disorganised” and that Steen, not being able to bring in enough money from his paintings ran an inn but Houbraken cynically pointed out that Steen’s best customer was himself!  However maybe the facts do not bear out the biographer’s assertions for Steen completed over 1400 pictures in a span of 30 years,  so could he possibly have had time to waste by drinking in his inn?  In yesterdays offering I spoke about artists liking to incorporate their own image into their paintings and Steen was no different.  He would even add his wife’s image into some of his bawdy pub scenes and she, rather than being flattered by her inclusion, would claim that her husband was always showing her as a “horny tart, a matchmaker or a drunken whore”!  It could be that she was the model for the drunken woman in today’s painting.

The chaos which reigns in this painting is similar to the themes in many of his household scenes and “a Steen household” is a Dutch phrase which means a household which is a badly managed and in total chaos.