Eight Dutch Masters: Jan Steen

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Jan Steen
Lieden 1626 - Leiden 1679

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  • Nicholas Maes
  • Rembrandt van Rijn
  • Jan Steen
  • Michael Sweerts
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Remarkably, given the meager living he made from art, Jan Steen was the humorist among Dutch painters. He persevered, creating nearly eight hundred pictures, most with a moral beneath the wit. A prosperous brewer's son, Steen enrolled in Leyden University in 1646, but by 1648 he was helping to found the Leyden Guild of Saint Luke. His teachers may have included Nikolaus Knüpfer. Steen was not one to stay put; he lived in The Hague; Haarlem; Leyden, where he ran a tavern; and Delft, where he leased a brewery. He married Jan van Goyen's daughter.

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. In Holland he ranks next to Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Hals in popularity and a 'Jan Steen household' has become an epithet for an untidy house. But Steen, one of the most prolific Dutch artists, has many other faces. He painted portraits, historical, mythological, and religious subjects (he was a Catholic), and the animals, birds, and still-lives in his pictures rival those by any specialist contemporaries. As a painter of children he was unsurpassed.

Steen was born in Leiden and is said to have studied with Adriaen van Ostade in Haarlem and Jan van Goyen (who became his father-in-law) in The Hague. He worked in various towns - Leiden, The Hague, Delft, Warmond, and Haarlem - and in 1672 he opened a tavern in Leiden. His father had been a brewer, and in the popular imagination Steen was a drunken profligate, but there is nothing in the known facts to justify this reputation. Many of his pictures represent taverns and festive gatherings, but they often feature moralizing allusions, and he also painted scenes of impeccable genteelness. Apart from his versatility, richness of characterization, and inventiveness in composition, Steen is remarkable also for his skill as a colorist, his handling of salmon-red, rose, pale yellow, and blue-green being highly distinctive.

He had no recorded pupils, but his work was widely imitated.

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poll initiated: june 15, 2014